Yesterday’s failed attempt by the FBI to resolve the siege marked a significant – and, as it turned out, badly flawed – change in tactics in a case that has attracted world attention because of the large number of Australians, Britons, New Zealanders and Israelis among cult members.
Only nine of those still in the Branch Davidian compound, on a windswept Texas prairie 15 kilometres from Waco, appear to have survived yesterday’s tragedy.
The FBI’s operations chief in Waco, Mr Bob Ricks, said agents would begin a full search to recover bodies this morning when the heat of the blaze is expected to have subsided. The compound stretched over a full city block and is believed to involve tunnels under the main buildings.
Koresh’s continuing sway over his followers – survivors said he told them that they would ascend the flames and be reunited in heaven – was graphically illustrated when one female cult member attempted to go back into the inferno and had to be restrained by an FBI agent who jumped out of a tank.
One Australian citizen was among the survivors of the siege’s apocalyptic finale. The man, identified by Australian officials as Graeme Craddock, 31, was not hurt and was taken to a prison in Waco where most of the adults who have come out of the compound over the past seven weeks are held.
A total of 36 other compound residents, 15 adults and 21 children, have come out individually or in small groups since the standoff began.
It was often speculated that Koresh was releasing those whose loyalties were least dependable so as to surround himself only with total loyalists. The way in which large numbers of them heeded his call for suicide suggested that they were indeed a loyal core.
Another Australian, Oliver Gyarfas, 19, has been held in the same prison as a material witness in the case since he came out of the compound five weeks ago.
Australia’s Houston-based consul, Mr Peter Urban, said at least seven Australian citizens remained unaccounted for after the fire. Mr Urban went to Waco last night for talks with US officials about the fate of Australian members of the cult.
“Our role is to ensure that those in custody get equal treatment under the law and are taken care of medically,” Mr Urban said.
As many as a dozen Australian- born followers and their children were in the cult, but the exact number is unclear because many changed their citizenship.
FBI officials said the decision to punch holes in the faded pink walls of the L-shaped complex and drench it with tear gas was made late on Saturday night when Ms Reno finally agreed with federal officials in Waco that nothing else would work.
They had tried negotiating. They had cut off the telephone and electricity, surrounded the compound with concertina wire and bombarded cult members through the night with the sounds of dentists’ drills, locomotives and rabbits being slaughtered.
With each step the agents received no indications that the costly standoff could be ended with no further loss of life.
The siege began with a shootout with the cult in February that killed four officers from a US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms team sent to the compound outside Waco to arrest Koresh for illegal weapons possession.
Ironically, the FBI became involved in the case because the ATF was perceived as having botched the original raid.
Some cult members have confirmed that they stockpiled weapons in preparation for what Koresh had long prophesied would be an apocalyptic firefight with law enforcement officials that could be a precursor to the end of the world in which cult members would go to heaven.
Late last night there nothing left of the compound except for a cinderblock structure amid the smouldering ruins that agents said Koresh intended as a bunker.
Agents said there were many bodies inside but they could not give an exact number and there were no indications that Koresh’s body had been identified.
The fire started a few minutes after noon, local time, on the second floor of the north-east wing of the wooden compound that is formally known as Mount Carmel even though the surrounding countryside is totally flat.
Fed by brisk winds and some type of accelerant inside, the fire spread rapidly and the entire structure was devoured in less than half an hour. One of the last things to fall into the inferno was a pole with a flag bearing a modified Star of David which had flown since the third day of the standoff.
One major question left unresolved was why there was so little preparation to fight a fire.
There appeared to be no fire engines at the scene as the blaze erupted and one was not seen in the compound area until nearly 30 minutes after the fire began. Waco officials said the fire was well under way before they got a call
THE LAST BATTLE
6.05am An armoured vehicle rams the wall of the compound near the front door. Tear gas is injected through the hole into the building as loudspeakers urge those inside to surrender. Cult members open fire on the tank.
7am – noon Armoured vehicles continue to punch holes in the wooden frame building, pumping in tear gas and badly damaging the exterior.
12.10pm Smoke appears from several windows, followed by flames. Twenty five minutes later the entire compound is on fire. Within minutes the buildings have all collapsed.
On July 23, 2000, the Herald reported: An outside investigator has absolved Attorney-General Janet Reno and the US Government of wrongdoing in the 1993 siege near Waco, Texas, in which more than 80 people died. He blamed members of the Branch Davidian sect for shooting at their own people and starting the fire that ended the siege. Former Republican senator John Danforth said yesterday he could say with “100 per cent certainty” that government agents did not start the fire, shoot at the sect members, improperly use soldiers or engage in a cover-up. “The tragedy at Waco rests with certain Branch Davidians and their leader David Koresh,” he said.