In 1993, 80 members of the Branch Davidian sect died when US agents stormed their compound in Waco. Ten years on, the Davidians have regrouped, rebuilt their church and, as Alex Hannaford reports, are still in the thrall of their dead leader.
Once you have clambered over the huge tank tracks in the mud and negotiated large areas of weeds and brush scrub, the evidence of a decade-old tragedy is plain to see: a pair of charred leather boots, a single high-heeled pink and white shoe, several glass bottles, the burned and tattered remains of a dress and a table lamp, its metal base contorted by the heat. Ron Goins picks up a small piece of bone. “I don’t figure this is human bone, but a number of people weren’t recovered after the fire,” he says.
Waco, Texas, will forever be known for the siege that began in February 1993 when agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms raided a compound owned by the Branch Davidian religious sect to investigate allegations of weapons hoarding. A 51-day stand-off between sect members and the FBI ensued and ended on April 19 when the complex was tear-gassed and a fire engulfed the building. Eighty Branch Davidians died, either in the fire or from gunfire. The dead included their 33-year-old leader David Koresh and 17 children.
The site of the siege was the 77-acre Mount Carmel ranch, about a 20-minute drive from the I35 – the busy freeway that links Dallas in the north and Austin in the south. Just in case anyone has forgotten what happened 10 years ago, inside Mount Carmel a tiny one-room visitors’ centre chronicles the events, and photographs and text pinned to the walls describe the siege and fire.
Of the survivors, some have moved on, some are still in prison (indicted on charges of conspiracy to murder and murder), and some, including Koresh’s mother, Bonnie Haldeman, remain in Waco, committed to the Davidian leader’s ideology.
Although those left at Mount Carmel insist they are not evangelising, Ron Goins has only been around for five years and is already a convert. Describing himself as a “volunteer” he says he was traumatised by what happened. “I believe David was a messenger from God,” he says. “We’re all coming back. That’s the promise. I believe in the resurrection. I believe I’m here for a reason. I’m not attracted by a cult.”
On the site of the original compound stands a large white wooden church, built this year by various well-wishers, including Goins. Opposite the church are 7ft-tall cyprus trees, with a plaque at the bottom of each commemorating a Davidian member who lost their life. One reads: “David Koresh, 33.”
The Davidians who still attend church at Mount Carmel every Saturday believe Koresh is coming back in the not too distant future. To them, he wasn’t just a prophet – he was Christ.
“I know for a fact he was,” says Catherine Mattison, one of the survivors. “The second coming of Christ was in 1959, the year David was born.”
Mattison made headlines when, a month before the fire, she carried a taped sermon by Koresh out of the compound as part of a deal brokered by the FBI. They would give it national airplay in return for the release of all Davidian members. It was broadcast on the Christian Network in the US but the next day Koresh had changed his mind, telling negotiators God had told him to stay.
Mattison recalls the moment BATF first arrived. “They were shooting when they came in. I went upstairs to my room and all of a sudden I could see three helicopters in V-formation firing. David’s rooms were in the back of the building and that’s where they were firing. I didn’t realise that for three months afterwards because of all the shock and commotion but they were trying to kill him right then. I didn’t want to leave but David asked me to because he’d made a tape and said he wanted the world to understand.
“So many memories,” she sighs as she stares at the empty ground around the side of the church. She was 87 this year but doesn’t look it. She reads avidly – back in her Waco apartment, books on Isaac Newton, Genghis Khan and JFK are piled up on a table underneath her Bible. She resents accusations that she was brainwashed by Koresh. “Everybody is brainwashed. Look at television,” she says. “I’ve been brainwashed by God’s word. David said he was going to give us God’s word and he did.
She does recall 18-hour sermons by Koresh, but insists that everybody wanted to hear them. “Sometimes I was ready to go to sleep afterwards,” she laughs. “I used to love going shopping downtown but I stopped because I didn’t want to miss a sermon. I once went to the doctors, came back and had missed a meeting and I was really upset.”
The surviving Branch Davidians believe there will be an earthquake in Waco before Koresh rises from the dead. “We’re nearing the end of days,” Mattison says. “It will be in my lifetime.”
Clive Doyle agrees. He too was living in the compound under Koresh’s leadership and was one of the nine to escape the blaze. He now lives in a trailer near the visitors’ centre on Mount Carmel. On a scale model of the Davidian compound he points to where government tanks smashed a hole in the wall of the chapel. “Four of us came through here,” he says. “I was badly burned and had to have skin grafts on my hands. It was scary enough and quite an ordeal.
“The reason I’m still here is I know what went on and why we were here and I want to explain this to people. I still believe in David. I lost a daughter and a lot of friends, some of whom I’d known for 30 years.”
His daughter, Shari, was just 18 at the time. Perhaps one of the more sinister allegations levelled against Koresh was that he was “marrying” many of the female members of the group and having sex with some as young as 15. Asked whether Shari was one of Koresh’s “wives”, Doyle turns his head. “I cannot answer that. If she wanted to I would have supported her. David said every woman was his wife even if they didn’t enter into a physical relationship with him. Every man belonged to him as well.”
“David did have 100 wives, but God told him to,” Mattison adds. “The youngest was around 15, but her parents agreed to the marriage and the thing is she didn’t look 15 and she didn’t act 15. If you don’t know the scriptures you can’t understand why. He never took anybody that God didn’t tell him to. David would tell us not to tell anyone else because they wouldn’t understand.
“What is wrong with the world today is that there are no standards,” she says. “Just look at what’s happening on the TV. Sex is everywhere and people say there’s nothing wrong with it. That’s what they’re teaching the young people.” The irony seems to be lost on her.
Another allegation was that he beat the children living on Mount Carmel. Doyle explains: “They said he used to beat them until they bled, which was a lie. He never hit anyone in anger. He encouraged parents to buy what he called “mother’s little helper” – basically a paddle. He told them to explain what the child had done wrong, paddle them and then love them. I remember one mother didn’t agree with smacking her child but one day she beat him until he bled and then said, ‘I hope David’s happy now.’ We all told her that he wouldn’t be happy that she had taken it so far.”
“Each child had a paddle with his own name on it,” says Mattison with a smile.
While their future as prophesied by Koresh seems assured in their minds, the future of Mount Carmel is far from certain. The ranch belongs to the Davidians but the trusteeship of the land has been disputed over the years. The courts will eventually determine ownership after the survivors die and there are expected to be competing factions among the Davidians in other parts of the US and abroad, and among the Seventh Day Adventists.
“I have no feelings about what happened here,” Mattison says, “and I don’t regret anything. Even when I was looking at the fire I didn’t feel sad because I knew what was happening and why. In the Dark Ages when they were killing Christians by putting them on poles and burning them, they would sing. Their minds weren’t there so they didn’t feel anything. God takes care of everything. I knew the people at Mount Carmel were singing. And if they were singing, their mind wasn’t on the fire. The children were singing too. They knew the lions were going to tear them to pieces but they knelt down and they prayed and they sang. What David taught was worth dying for.”