By: Chris Watkins
November 28, 1999 I was one of only nine survivors of the Waco blaze — 74 men, women and children died — and I’ve devoted the last six years to understanding what happened there. Back in 1990 I had been drumming in a stagnant Los Angeles rock band when I met and befriended David Koresh. I needed some new drumsticks, and on the way to a gig stopped in at the Guitars R Us on Sunset Boulevard. Seeing the sticks in my hand, two strangers introduced themselves and asked if I was playing in a band. The two were David Koresh and Steve Shumacher, the closest thing Koresh had to a deputy. Schumacher gave me his card and I promptly handed it back. The backside was full of Bible verses. “You guys are a Christian band,” I said. I had never been religious in my life, but I was curious. There were questions that I wanted answers to. Schumacher and Koresh weren’t pushy and made it clear that all they really were looking for right now was a drummer. “I’d like to play some music with you,” Koresh said, “and see where we can go from there.” My band was going nowhere, and Koresh intrigued me. So I took the card back, and a few days later gave him a call. Over the next weeks I hung out with Koresh and some other musicians in his band. I got to know Koresh and was tremendously impressed. Having never paid much attention to the Bible, I was astonished to find that it actually did have some relevance to my life. And while Koresh had never gotten much in the way of formal education, it was clear that his knowledge of and insight into the scriptures was remarkable. That fall I went out to Waco to play music and meet the larger community. The people at Mount Carmel were extremely involved in knowing and learning the Bible. In the process of demonizing Koresh and the Branch Davidians, a name we never used when describing ourselves, people have made it seem as if Mount Carmel came out of nowhere. In fact, Koresh was the third leader of a religious community that spun off from the Seventh Day Adventists in 1934. They had been living outside of Waco for almost 60 years before the ATF raid in 1993. I was fascinated with their spiritual search, and I began to read the Bible. Koresh was interesting, and the ways in which he explained the scriptures were complex and demanding. He was clearly a serious religious scholar and I wanted to understand what he was saying. So I stayed. The people around Koresh came from many backgrounds. I met folks who hadn’t finished high school, and others with degrees from places like Harvard law school. I spent time with African-Americans, Australians, black Britons, Mexican- Americans and more. We certainly weren’t as isolated as people seem to think. We shopped in town, some of us worked in the community and our band performed in Waco clubs. I worked as a bartender in Waco for a time and I doubt a single customer would tell you that I stood out in any way other than my ability to mix a mean margarita. Many have suggested that Koresh was a Jim Jones-like madman. But he wasn’t. He had no plans for mass suicide; indeed, in sharp contrast to Jones, Koresh allowed members of the community to leave at any time, and many of them did, even during the siege. But many of us stayed, too, not because we had to, but because we wanted to. The FBI and ATF had been confrontational from the start, they had lied to us and they continued lying up through the siege. The FBI and ATF had many reasons for their attack on Mount Carmel. The initial ATF raid, in which four ATF agents and six Davidians were killed, was based on allegations that we were running a drug lab. But later even ATF employees would admit the charges were “a complete fabrication.” One member had allowed speed dealers to operate from the building in the mid-1980s, but everyone knew Koresh hated drugs, and he’d asked the Waco sheriff to remove the methamphetamine lab when he took over as leader in 1987. Charges that we were assembling an arsenal of weapons to be used against the government were equally off-base. We ran a business, buying and selling weapons at gun shows, to bring in revenue for the community. Only a few of us at Mount Carmel were directly involved with this but it was a relatively profitable line of work. Everything was bought and sold on a legal basis. Maybe the most disturbing allegation, to those inside the building, was that we were engaging in child abuse there. The children of Mount Carmel were treasured, and they were a vital part of our small society. A disgruntled former resident was the original source of complaints about the treatment of children, and his wild allegations — that we were planning to sacrifice one of our children on Yom Kippur one year were false. Occasionally kids were paddled for misbehaving. The biggest lie, though, is the FBI’s claim that we set the building fire ourselves, to commit suicide. At the very least, the FBI has already provided proof that it created the conditions for a disaster. On the April morning when the FBI finally made its move, we had been under siege for 51 days. The FBI had cut off our power weeks earlier, so we had been resigned to heating the building with kerosene lamps. It was kerosene and gas from these lamps and the storage canisters, spilled over the floors as a result of collapsing walls and FBI munitions fire, that is often mistakenly taken as evidence that we doused Mount Carmel with an intent of burning it. Furthermore, the noxious CS gas that the FBI shot into Mount Carmel was mixed with methylene chloride, which is flammable when mixed with air and can become explosive in confined spaces. CS gas is so nasty that the United States, along with 130 other countries, has signed the Chemical Weapons Convention banning its use in warfare. But apparently there is no prohibition against its use against American citizens. The amount of gas the FBI shot into Mount Carmel was twice the density considered life threatening to an adult and even more dangerous for little children. Ironically, one of the questions that was asked of the FBI during the congressional hearings was “Why didn’t you use an anesthetic gas that would have put the people inside to sleep?” The FBI said it felt anesthetic gas would be harmful to the women and children. I never heard any serious discussion of suicide or starting fires. I certainly never saw anyone try to do so. If we had really wanted to kill ourselves, we would not have waited 51 cold, hungry, scary days to do it. Truth is, we were desperate to live, to figure out a way to end the standoff. But the FBI, riled up, was not going to let that happen. . It remains hard for me to clearly remember what happened after the tanks made their move. Walls collapsed, the building shook, gas billowed in and the air was full of terrible sounds: the hiss of gas, the shattering of windows, the bang of exploding rockets, the raw squeal of tank tracks. There were screams of children and the gasps and sobs of those who could not protect themselves from the noxious CS. This continued for hours. Inside Mount Carmel, the notion of leaving seemed insane; with tanks smashing through your walls and rockets smashing through the windows, our very human reaction was not to walk out but to find a safe corner and pray. As the tanks rolled in and began smashing holes in the building and spraying gas into the building, the FBI loudspeaker blared, “This is not an assault! This is not an assault!” Around noon I heard someone yell, “Fire!” I thought first of the women and children, whom I had been separated from. I tried desperately to make my way to them, but it was impossible: rubble blocked off passageways, and the fire was spreading quickly. I dropped to my knees to pray, and the wall next to me erupted in flame. I smelled my singed hair and screamed. Community member Derek Lovelock, who had ended up in the same place as me, ran through a hole in the wall and I followed. Moments later, the building exploded.
David Thibodeau’s book, “A Place Called Waco: A Survivor’s Story, has just been published by PublicAffairs/Perseus Books
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By: Chris Watkins