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
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 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
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
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
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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