It is hard to believe that twenty years ago this month, April 19, 1993, virtually everyone in America, and perhaps the world as well, watched a group of religious “nuts” cremated in a fiery furnace. “They deserved it because they were a cult,” the media inferred, had held off the ATF and later the FBI for 51 days, and were guilty of child abuse, polygamy, and gun running. It was also suggested that they set themselves on fire.
Most of the charges proved baseless. Those actually convicted of a crime, although first exonerated by Texas courts, were found guilty under federal law for manslaughter (ten years) and for using a firearm during a crime (30 years). The crime, the Branch Davidians attest, was self-defense and 40 year sentences seemed excessive. There still exists no evidence that an actual warrant was ever delivered and today each insists that the other fired first. In either case, four ATF officers and six Davidians were killed in the initial shootout on February 28, 1993.
I thought it fitting to review the numerous news broadcasts of the event that I collected and used in the production of The Waco Massacre: We did it for the Children, which can be viewed on YouTube, for those who have forgotten and for those born since—lest we forget. The most impartial coverage at the time came from Dianne Sawyer from which a number of the quotes in this piece came. The vast majority of the news people simply regurgitated what the FBI said was so. Reporters were kept five miles away. The FBI briefed newsmen once a day in a special building set aside for that purpose and they “clone like” repeated the government message.
The most thorough investigation is that of the 1997 Academy-award nominee, Waco: The Rules of Engagement, a Congressional investigation, now available on video. It disclosed two key parts to the story: the presence of government incendiary devises on the site casting doubt that the Branch Davidians set themselves on fire as reported, and the effects of CS gas on those inside, especially one little girl whose charred body revealed her heels touching the back of her head. CS gas causes the muscles to constrict. This is not as serious when the individual is bent forward as the body is made to bend this direction but when the body is ever so slightly bent backward, as with the girl, it breaks bones in the constriction. Presumably CS gas had been banned for military use.
Other videos initially show tanks running over bicycles, cars and boats then later poking holes into the side of the wooden structure. Any jarring of a wood framed structure seals the doors inside and makes movement difficult even impossible if doors are closed. The Davidians may not have been able to escape the fire. At one point a video shows an Abrams tank being brought in. Dianne Sawyer refers to it as “the heaviest tank in the armies arsenal.” Films also show helicopters flying overhead day and night. Dick DeGuerin, David Koresh’s attorney, who spent at least 30 hours with David, talks on tape about bullet holes in the ceiling presumably from helicopters above indiscriminately shooting and of his having examined a wound to the upper part of the body of Mr. Koresh received while he was lying down. Videos exist of other armored vehicles on site as well.
Other reports spoke of the sound of rabbits being slaughtered, loud music blasted all night with speakers aimed at their living quarters. The most intimidating song played repeatedly was, “These boots are made for walking,” sung by Nancy Sinatra. The lyrics have an ire prophetic feel to them considering what eventually happened. They follow: “These boots are made for walking, and that’s just what they’ll do. One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you. You keep playin’ where you shouldn’t be playin and you keep thinkin’ that you´ll never get burnt. Ha! I just found me a brand new box of matches yeah and what he knows you ain’t had time to learn. These boots are made for walking, and that’s just what they’ll do. One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you.” Surely the federal government and the Bill Clinton Administration have much still to explain.
But the toughest images are those of the survivors. One survivor, Ruth Riddle, said later, “I remember sitting in my room watching the tanks go through the building. They kept saying, ‘This is not an assault… But how could it be otherwise’.” She also described the last moments. “The fire got so hot. It was coming down the hallway. It was outside the windows. It got so close and got so hot… And so I jumped. When I was looking back. I heard someone say. Where is everybody? Where are the children? What can I say? The building was burning where everybody was.”
Another survivor said, “The wall next to me caught on fire. Then I leaped out the side of the window. Looking back, seeing the place on fire, I saw someone fall out a window, on fire.”
People in their last moments would gather as a family. One family of seven members was gathered where they were all touching each other as they finally fell into a clump. Dianne Sawyer spoke of “thirty-one mothers and all the children huddled shoulder to shoulder in the fierce heat covered with wet blankets.”
One of the most moving films showed a tank poking holes in their home but in the same picture the U.S. flag on a pole in front waved in the breeze. That flag remained waving long after the structure was smoldering rubble on the ground and all eighty in the building, including at least 17 little children, had been burned alive. In this case the stars and strips did not protect this church, nor its inhabitants of children and families. We must never forget. Another photo, not far from the flag showed the mailbox out front. It read, Branch Davidian Church, Box 471B. The Constitution, and flag, should be for all, even the “nuts.” In this case, it, and the search warrant, appears to be missing.
Dr. Harold Pease is an expert on the United States Constitution. He has dedicated his career to studying the writings of the Founding Fathers and applying that knowledge to current events. He has taught history and political science from this perspective for over 25 years at Taft College. To read more of his weekly articles, please visit www.LibertyUnderFire.org.