Fiery ending leaves this question: Why? WACO: A FIERY END

April 20, 1993|By Patrick A. McGuire | Patrick A. McGuire,Staff Writer

Even as those horrific sheets of orange flame leapt into the inky, wind-swept clouds of smoke boiling from the Branch Davidian compound near Waco yesterday, the questions began to fly.

Why tear gas? Why the assault? Why the fire? Why suicide? Why now?

A simple, haunting "why" may turn out to be the most often asked question in the wake of the fiery end yesterday to the 51-day holdout of a heavily armed religious cult against hundreds of federal agents.

Only nine of cult leader David Koresh's followers appear to have survived as the fire took less than an hour to devour a multitowered compound that had become all too familiar to television news viewers in the last seven weeks.

And while the Justice Department says yesterday's fire was set by cult members as part of an apparent mass suicide pact following an early morning barrage of tear gas by the FBI, the controversy over this tragic incident is only just beginning.

From the initial ill-fated Feb. 28 raid to yesterday's hellish end, this has been an operation criticized and second-guessed by the news media, law enforcement authorities, psychologists, politicians and the ordinary public from top to bottom.

Just last week, in fact, the debate over the drawn-out siege seemed to turn up a notch as a variety of public voices began to ask why the FBI didn't take more forceful action.

From the streets of Waco to the airwaves of Baltimore talk shows, people wanted to know why the army of federal agents -- whose occupation had cost close to $7 million -- didn't simply knock down the doors and bring out Mr. Koresh and his 95 followers.

Yesterday, though, many of the same people were wondering why the FBI acted as they had and whether those actions had somehow precipitated the fire and alleged suicides.

To a reporter who spent nine days just before Easter observing the circus atmosphere surrounding the siege, the FBI seemed very much above the public pressure to hurry things.

Their policy of negotiating to avoid hurting the large number of children inside seemed clearly spelled out when FBI agent Richard Schwein told reporters in Waco, "We are patient people. We can outlast them."

At the same time Special Agent Bob Ricks, one of four on-scene FBI commanders, was saying the bureau hadn't lost patience, he was saying tanks had knocked holes in the compound's walls and injected huge amounts of tear gas.

"At this point we're not negotiating," he told reporters. "We're saying: 'Come out. Come out with your hands up. This matter is over.' "

Within an hour he knew only too well the truth of his statement, admitting that he and other agents had cried, "Oh, my God, they're killing themselves," as they saw the first flames begin to shoot from the compound.

Still, after it was all over, Agent Ricks admitted that the FBI finally felt it was time to "up the ante" against Mr. Koresh, by deploying the tear gas. And while expressing regret at the loss of life, he suggested the operation had been at least a modified success because not a single federal shot had been fired and not a single federal agent had been hurt.

Other postmortems are likely to focus on the planning behind the original raid, designed to serve arrest and search warrants on Mr. Koresh -- also known as Vernon Howell -- for illegally altering firearms. Four agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms died in that raid, 16 were wounded and perhaps six cult members were killed.

Following the raid, the White House ordered the FBI's elite hostage rescue team take charge of the negotiations. Mr. Koresh disappointed everyone early on by promising and reneging on a surrender deal and hinting strongly then of a mass suicide pact.

The FBI settled in for a long, cautious siege, allowing only two attorneys to enter the compound to talk with Mr. Koresh. The lawyers held out hope the siege would end peacefully. "They are kind, gentle people," said Houston lawyer, Jack Zimmerman after one session.

But the FBI seemed uncomfortable with that characterization, preferring instead to think of them as dangerously paranoid and unpredictable.

Thus, when Mr. Koresh's grandmother pleaded to be allowed into the compound to see the young man she had raised as a baby, Agent Ricks replied, "A lot of people think if you just talk to them logically they will come out. His grandmother raised Vernon Howell; she didn't raise David Koresh."

That suggestion of Mr. Koresh's craziness seemed justified. The man who claimed alternately to be King David, Jesus Christ and Yahweh had hinted early on of the conflagration.

Even two weeks ago, ATF division chief David Troy said authorities were concerned that Mr. Koresh may have wired his compound with explosives. And then, last week, just as public patience was wearing thin, Mr. Koresh, under his guise as God, )) sent the FBI a letter warning they would be "devoured by fire" if attacked.

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