British man recalls how his sister became a follower of cult leader David Koresh

04/18/2013 11:21 PM

04/19/2013 3:25 AM

Twenty years ago, Lloyd Hardial was watching on television as flames consumed the Branch Davidian compound near Waco. Hardial knew that his younger sister, Sandra, was somewhere inside.

"I felt so disempowered, being so far away," Hardial said in a telephone interview from Manchester, England. "The second thing I felt was shock. The way the fire rapidly engulfed the compound, it was clear there were going to be casualties. Against all odds, my hope was that somehow she managed to scramble away."

By evening on April 19, 1993, Hardial knew that only nine followers of cult leader David Koresh had survived. Sandra Hardial was not among them.

Today, he still wonders how it could have gone so wrong. His sister, who was 27 when she died, had been a deeply religious person, a college graduate with a good job with the Manchester City Council. What was it about Koresh that caused her to give up everything for the cult leader on the Texas plains?

"When I look at it, there is a very thin line between what is rational and what is irrational," said Hardial, a 48-year-old hospital administrator. "I ask myself, 'How does a belief differ from a delusion?' There is a very thin dividing line."

Sandra Hardial was smart and outgoing, a person who loved poetry, sports and took annual ski trips to the Alps. After college, she went to work in Manchester's housing department.

She and her brother were very close, but one thing they did not discuss was religion. Lloyd Hardial believed in God, but had a profound distaste for organized faiths. His sister was a devout Seventh Day Adventist. It was at her Manchester church that she met carpenter Samuel Henry, his wife and five grown children.

"The things she seemed to focus on when it came to the Bible was how the world would come to an end," Lloyd Hardial said. "She was quite preoccupied with the Book of Revelation and the Book of Daniel. She was always fearful that the end of the world was imminent."

David Koresh preached the same thing on his recruiting trips to England in the late 1980s. Sandra Hardial heard Koresh, and made a two-week pilgrimage to the United States in 1990 to investigate his teachings further. Though Samuel Henry was bitterly opposed, his wife and five children did the same. Sandra Hardial disappeared a second time in the spring of 1992. She had been expected to join her family for a vacation in Jamaica, but didn't show up.

"Once we got back to the U.K., she had left us a letter, explaining she was back in Waco, and she felt there was more work to do in terms of understanding the scripture," Lloyd Hardial said. "She left a phone number and she would ring fairly often. ... She had a sizable amount of savings that had not been touched, and we felt she would come back when the time was right.

"In our telephone conversations, she never sounded disturbed," he said. "Nothing in her speech suggested she was being coached. She sounded her normal self."

Hardial last talked to his sister around Christmas in 1992. On Feb. 28, 1993, he watched the bloody gunbattle on television between federal agents and followers of Koresh. That was when Hardial first learned the more sinister side of the Branch Davidian leader. A 51-day standoff followed the raid. Sandra Hardial and the Henrys were among more than 100 of Koresh's followers cloistered away in a complex of buildings that became familiar around the world.

A handful of Koresh's followers were allowed to leave during the standoff. Sandra Hardial wasn't one.

"I always had hope that Sandra would be one of them," Lloyd Hardial said. "While the negotiations were taking place, the authorities allowed Koresh to say his piece. I viewed that as possibly the beginning of the end, that there would be no more bloodshed."

Then Lloyd Hardial and the rest of the world watched the compound burn, fires that were set by the Branch Davidians at several places inside. Seventy-four Branch Davidians died that day, including Koresh, Sandra Hardial, Samuel Henry's wife and five children, and 20 other children under the age of 14.

"Her post mortem said she died of smoke inhalation," Lloyd Hardial said. "But there was something else in there. It seemed to suggest there were traces of cyanide in her gall bladder. It still boggles my mind. At no stage did she ever have any suicidal tendencies. She was part of a loving family. We loved each other a great deal."

Lloyd Hardial later read about what happened in Jonestown in 1978, where more than 900 followers of cult leader Jim Jones committed suicide in the jungles of Guyana.

"When you look at that, and what happened in Waco, they are spookily similar," Lloyd Hardial said. "It's patently obvious that things were occurring there that were quite unsavory. I think religion is a dual-edged sword. It brings out the best in some, and the worst in others. People can be taken in by individuals like Koresh. There is a certain charm, a certain charisma that people will fall for hook, line and sinker."

Tim Madigan, 817-390-7544

Twitter: @tsmadigan

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