Branch Davidian site recalls painful chapter for visitors

AP, Apr. 12, 2003

WACO, Texas (AP) – Weeds and grass have grown up around a concrete slab, the stone base of a wall, charred wooden planks and chunks of twisted metal.

These are remnants of the Branch Davidian compound that burned to the ground April 19, 1993, killing nearly 80 members of a religious group and ending a 51-day standoff that followed a failed raid by federal agents.

Each year, hundreds of people visit this site in a pasture 10 miles east of Waco off a winding, two-lane road past cow pastures, fields of wildflowers and a few houses.

Some make pilgrimages, drawn by anger over by what they contend was an aggressive law enforcement raid on a harmless group who had a right to own weapons. They believe the Davidians were only defending themselves when they shot back in the Feb. 28, 1993, raid that left six of their own and four Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents dead.

And these visitors believe survivors’ gripping accounts that the fire, seven weeks later, started after agents fired incendiary devices and after military vehicles rammed the buildings, spraying tear gas inside.

Curiosity draws others who want to stand on the site of an event they watched unfold on television.

“I think it’s kind of eerie. It’s out in the middle of nowhere,” Baylor University student Laura Newitt, 19, said Saturday as she and two friends visiting from Missouri went to the site for the first time. “We were in the second grade when this happened but I remember watching it on TV.”

Some people who stop by the site grieve for the two dozen children who died. They come to the site to leave flowers, a note or say a prayer.

Those visitors are satisfied with a government investigation revealing that on the final day, the Branch Davidians committed suicide by shooting each other – including some of the youngsters – and setting the blaze.

“I don’t want to talk bad about the dead, but I definitely think this could have been prevented,” said Ryan Swindell, 23, who drove to the site Saturday with his wife, Christina, from their Killeen home. “It’s another tragedy of a cult.”

The site was named Mount Carmel by the religious group, an offshoot of the Seventh-day Adventists that had been in the area for decades. More followers began moving there after a charismatic man named Vernon Howell became the leader in 1984.

They built the large compound, which had two floors of sleeping quarters, an underground bunker, cafeteria, chapel, gym, swimming pool, water tank and observation tower.

Few in Waco paid attention to them until the early 1990s, when word began to spread about child abuse and the multiple underage “wives” of Howell, who had changed his name to David Koresh.

Authorities also learned he was predicting the end of the world and stockpiling illegal guns and explosives, which led to the ATF raid.

Clive Doyle, 62, who survived the siege and lives in a trailer at the site, said the public’s interest has waned only a bit through the years.

“People are out here every day,” he said. “Different people come for different reasons.”

Doyle lives beside a visitors center, built a few years after the blaze just off the road leading to the compound site. The one-room wooden building displays a model of the compound, victims’ photographs and glass cases with bullet fragments and burned debris.

Down a gravel road is a small wooden chapel, painted pale yellow with burnt orange trim, where a handful of Branch Davidians meet for worship each Saturday. It was built a few years after the fire on the site of the original chapel.

In front is a rose-colored stone plaque with a message from Branch Davidians, thanking “the many volunteers and benefactors who have faithfully answered the spirit’s call to rebuild upon the ashes.”

Etched into a smaller stone plaque nearby are the names of the four ATF agents killed in the raid Feb. 28, 1993.

Across the gravel road from the chapel, a gray stone monument lists names of 82 Branch Davidians who died, including six adults killed in the initial raid and two unborn children whose mothers perished in the fire. The monument is surrounded by a grove of crepe myrtle trees, one representing each victim, planted a few years ago.

Behind a hill near the chapel is a ground-level decaying roof covering the storm shelter, now filled with rain water. That’s where Doyle buried four of the six Branch Davidians shot to death in the ATF raid. Nearby is an in-ground swimming pool, filled with rain water.

Doyle, whose 18-year-old daughter, Shari, died in the standoff’s fiery end, said he thinks sometimes about moving. Maybe to another town, maybe back to his native Australia.

But living here has provided emotional and spiritual healing for Doyle, whose hands bear scars from his narrow escape from the burning chapel a decade ago.

“We need somebody to be here to tell our side of the story, to inform people what went on,” Doyle said. “I don’t think America should ever forget what went on here.”

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