Houston Chronicle. Apr. 18, 2003
By JIM HENDERSON, Houston Chronicle
WACO — David Iben was 23 when the fire devoured Mount Carmel, killing 74 people, including nearly two dozen children. He was stunned as he watched it on television from his home in Illinois.
“All I could think was, `Wow,’ ” Iben said earlier this week as he stood among the granite markers and neat rows of crepe myrtles that commemorate the victims. “I was wondering, `How can the government do this to its own citizens?’ “
Until the 51-day siege of Mount Carmel began with a bungled attempt by federal agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to arrest the leader of the sect known as the Branch Davidians, Iben had never heard of the religion or David Koresh.
But, he is typical of others who have trekked to the Central Texas prairie over the years, drawn not by faith but astonishment.
“I started to read books about it,” Iben said. “I tried to learn everything I could. Then one day I found myself out here.”
He came back this week to attend today’s memorial service marking the 10th anniversary of the inferno.
That day has been recalled with annual services that have drawn small crowds of the curious as well as the diminishing number of Davidians.
Clive Doyle, 62, was in the compound throughout the siege and was one of nine who escaped the fire. He still lives in a house trailer on the grounds, conducts weekly services for half a dozen or so devotees and plans the yearly memorial services.
Does the 10th anniversary hold special significance?
“Ninth, 10th, 11th … they’re all the same,” he said. “Some people have been saying this would be the last. It won’t be.”
Most of the remaining Davidians are in their 60s or older. Some have died, others moved away.
Doyle said memorials will continue as long as there are survivors, but he acknowledges that one day they will all be gone.
“We’re not in the business of building an evangelical movement, of trying to convert people,” he said. “Basically, we’re a dying breed.”
Koresh may be irrelevant at Mount Carmel now. The faith may be irrelevant and the names etched in granite may not be long remembered.
But many of those who come here carry a mental picture that the years haven’t blurred: the image of tank cannons poking holes in the walls of the Davidians’ compound, the ensuing fire and the lives it took.
Bill Lockhart, an assistant professor of sociology at Baylor University, brought the 20 members of his sociology/religion class to Mount Carmel this week, not for a study of Davidianism but of government.
“It’s a case study of local people considered different by the rest of society and what the government did to them,” he said. “They didn’t do it right and by studying it, we hope we can keep it from happening again”
The events of the last day of the siege torched more than the Davidian compound. They inflamed anti-government extremists — Timothy McVeigh claimed Waco as the motivation for his bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building two years to the day later — but also touched quieter nerves in the less violent.
Ron Goins lived in Philadelphia and served in the Army Reserves in 1985 when military action was taken to remove Gen. Manuel Noriega from power in Panama and imprison him for drug trafficking.
“My reserve unit was called up for that,” he said. “I didn’t have to go, but when they got back, I heard all their stories. Then, when this happened, I saw the government using the same procedures against its own citizens.”
Another image stayed with him: On television, he saw workers preparing pauper’s graves for many of the victims on the edge of a Waco cemetery.
“They were digging old tires and other junk out of the ground,” he said. “They were buried in a trash heap.”
Like Iben, he read the books written about Mount Carmel and felt drawn to the place.
“It took five years for me to get down here,” he says. “I came for a look-see and decided to stay.”
He found a part-time job in town and signed on as an unpaid volunteer groundskeeper for Mount Carmel and curator of the small museum that has been established.
He is the resident authority on the tragedy, but he is not a Davidian and feels no attraction to that religion.
“I’m a Hasidic Jew,” he said.
Doyle and other survivors say the siege could have turned out differently. They say Koresh planned to lead his followers out peacefully after he finished a manuscript on the seven seals in the biblical book of Revelation. He was working on the second seal.
But law enforcement officials disagree, saying Koresh broke many promises to surrender. They say the inferno was a mass suicide orchestrated by Koresh, who had predicted an attack and told followers to be ready to die for him in a fire that would take them all to heaven.
“The people inside decided to systematically shoot or club or stab the children to death,” Bob Ricks, then-FBI special agent who worked with negotiators, told the Associated Press. “When they decided to kill themselves, there was … nothing but complete sadness, (FBI) people crying.”
But Doyle, an Australian whose 18-year-old daughter died in the fire, maintains that the government made an enormous blunder at Mount Carmel, but continues to conceal the actions and motives of the ATF and the FBI.
Still, he speaks softly and without bitterness about what happened to the Davidians.
“I could be bitter … angry … but would that bring my daughter back?” he asked.