Survivors gather at Waco site for third anniversary of assault Branch Davidians meet at 'hallowed grounds'

April 20, 1996|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WACO, Texas -- On a scrubby plain strewn with rubble, the surviving members of the Branch Davidian church gathered yesterday to mark the third anniversary of the federal assault on their compound -- a siege that left about 80 dead and turned the site into a shrine for those who believe the government abuses its power.

"Hallowed grounds," said former U. S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who represents some church members. "A spiritual place."

The group -- about 50 Davidians and their friends, far outnumbered by reporters and photographers -- began their commemoration at exactly the moment that Oklahomans were marking the first anniversary of the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building.

That act of terrorism came two years to the day after an inferno consumed the Davidian compound near Waco. Some believe the bombing of the federal building was an act of vengeance.

But while yesterday's Oklahoma City ceremonies drew the vice president, the governor, live network coverage and thousands of guests, the Davidian service was a modest, makeshift event.

Children crawled over ragged chunks of concrete, rusted pipes and ash. A steady wind brushed by the visitors, who sat in plastic folding chairs on a concrete slab -- all that remains of the sprawling complex called Mount Carmel that had been home to dozens of followers of David Koresh.

Across the roadway stand dozens of saplings, planted last year, with white crosses at their roots -- one tree for each of Mount Carmel's dead. Texas bluebonnets and pink primroses ornament the land.

Sheila Martin lost her husband, a Harvard-educated lawyer, and four of her seven children here. "It still hurts. It hurts a year later, two years later, three years later," she said yesterday.

"I always think of pain -- and that it didn't have to happen."

During her first visits to the property after the fire, she said she would plot in her mind what rooms sat where on the landscape, where her family lived, and where their lives ended.

"What bothered me at first when I came out here walking is that maybe this is the spot where my daughter died," she said.

The siege began Feb. 28, 1993, when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms launched a raid that ended with four agents and six Davidians dead. For the next 50 days, agents and police officers surrounded the compound, built on a small rise off a two-lane road about 10 miles from downtown Waco.

"Why'd they come like that?" Mr. Clark asked yesterday. "Why'd they have so many? Why'd they shoot?"

During the standoff, the federal government said it had evidence that Mr. Koresh, leader of the obscure sect, was stockpiling weapons, sexually molesting minors and brainwashing adults.

On April 19, with negotiations stalled, the FBI used armored personnel carriers to ram in the side of the building and toss in tear gas. But the building began to burn. Government investigators say the Davidians, with their belief that the world would end in fire, set the blaze. Davidians accuse the government of setting fire to the compound.

At one point in the three-hour service, the taped, tenor voice of VTC Mr. Koresh, singing one of the hundreds of songs he wrote, floated over the guests.

"That's him, accompanying himself on guitar," said Janet Kendrick, a Davidian who raised seven children during her 27 years in the community. "All his songs were based in the Bible."

Clive Doyle, who organized the event, lost his daughter, Shari, in the fire.

He and a few others stumbled out of the flames through a hole in the wall. He remains a Davidian, believing Mr. Koresh, the curly-haired rock musician who led the church, was a messiah.

As other survivors spoke, a few members of militia groups strolled through the crowd, handing out newsletters alleging the government bulldozed evidence that would prove it was the aggressor.

"Aren't we out of control?" asked David Thibodeau, who survived the fire. "What church is next?"

Mr. Doyle said he believes that the televised scenes of government vehicles battering the Davidian building before it burned converted many Americans to the belief that the government abuses its authority.

Most of the country's citizen militias, suspicious of the power of the federal government, have been formed since the siege of the Davidians, Mr. Doyle said.

And the government -- caught in a standoff with militiamen in Montana, worried about more terrorism at federal facilities -- has no one but itself to blame, he said.

"They've brought it on themselves," Mr. Doyle said. "They have to take responsibility for the militia movement."

Pub Date: 4/20/96

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