20 years later, sad memories and questions linger about Branch Davidian disaster

Posted Friday, Apr. 19, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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WACO -- On a grassy Texas prairie two decades ago, massive flames engulfed a religious sect's compound where nearly 80 people -- including two dozen children -- had been holed up since a botched federal raid seven weeks earlier.

Millions watched live television coverage of the fiery end of the government's standoff with Branch Davidian members, including sect leader David Koresh, whom authorities had been trying to arrest on weapons charges. Local hospitals prepared for burn victims, but only nine people escaped.

"After I jumped out, I could see the [burned] skin rolling off my hands," said Clive Doyle, who lost his 18-year-old daughter in the fire but escaped after a military vehicle rammed a hole through the building. "It was pure horror."

Emotional wounds remain raw for survivors and those who left the compound during the 51-day standoff, many who gathered for a memorial service Friday -- exactly 20 years after the blaze. They still blame law enforcement agencies for the deaths of their relatives and friends, seeing the incident as unwarranted government intrusion into personal and religious freedoms.

Most do not blame Koresh, and do not believe he held control over anyone.

Some survivors remain in Central Texas, but only a few still follow Koresh's teachings and attend a weekly Bible study led by Doyle. Although some still believe Koresh was a prophet, others have turned against religion or associate church with painful memories.

"It haunts me every day of my life," 29-year-old Heather Jones Burson said after the memorial service, which was attended by about 75 people, including survivors and others who blame the government. "To this day, I still don't understand why. There were so many other ways to deal with it."

ATF agents raided the compound about 10 miles east Waco on Feb. 28, 1993, trying to arrest Koresh for stockpiling illegal weapons. But the group -- an offshoot of the Seventh-day Adventists -- had been tipped off about the raid, and a shootout ensued. Four agents and six Davidians were killed that day, and a standoff began.

As the weeks dragged on, federal authorities said they were becoming worried about the Davidian children being abused. Koresh was known to have multiple "wives," including preteen girls. Then on April 19, 1993, after an FBI negotiator shouted over a loudspeaker for Koresh to lead his people out and "be a messiah, not a destroyer," military vehicles began ramming the buildings and spraying tear gas inside. A few hours later flames were seen spreading through the compound.

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