Supporters remember Waco deaths

Branch Davidians, kin still blame U.S. agency

April 20, 2003|By Jeff Zeleny | Jeff Zeleny,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WACO, Texas - The Branch Davidian compound is barely visible here on this piece of central Texas prairie, where tall green grasses and blooming wildflowers cover traces of the building that erupted in a deadly inferno 10 years ago.

A persistent wind blew yesterday, just as it did on April 19, 1993, when a fire and explosion consumed the Davidians and their compound after federal agents stormed the grounds at Mount Carmel, bringing a conclusion to a 51-day standoff between them and sect leader David Koresh and his followers.

A new church has been built where the compound stood. Nearly 100 Branch Davidian supporters and survivors gathered in it yesterday to remember the standoff and to criticize the government for the bungled attempt to arrest Koresh, which started the standoff. The storming of the compound left at least 80 people dead, including more than a dozen children.

"I don't think it should be forgotten," said Clive Doyle, 62, a Branch Davidian who escaped death that day and lives in a trailer on the grounds. The standoff, he said, should forever remind Americans of the dangers of a faceless government.

Although a Justice Department review concluded that Branch Davidians started the fire and shot each other in a mass suicide, the relatives of those who died and several militia groups skeptical of the government blame the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms for spraying tear gas and charging the building with military fighting vehicles.

"The world must never forget what happened here," said Ramsey Clark, a former U.S. attorney general who represents the surviving Davidians as they try to sue the government. "The government attacked defenseless children and women and men as old as I am today - 75."

On the sprawling grounds of Mount Carmel, about 12 miles northeast of Waco, dozens of visitors took snapshots of the site yesterday as they walked across the few remaining pieces of the compound. A charred bicycle and a doll remained, as did an underground storm shelter where the mothers and children huddled during the raid.

A few years ago, supporters planted crape myrtle trees and placed a tombstone for each person who died that day. The dead, ranging from 2 to 75 years old, were from England, Australia and the United States.

Nearby, a small monument was erected for the four federal agents who died Feb. 28, 1993, in the raid that started the standoff. The authorities had tried to arrest Koresh for stockpiling explosives and illegal guns.

Bonnie Haldeman, Koresh's mother, attended the hourlong service in the wooden church yesterday. She said she remains angry that her son had been portrayed as a doomsday cult leader with apocalyptic visions of an Armageddon and a battle between good and evil. His actions, she said, were taken out of context. She did not elaborate.

Jeff Zeleny is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

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