Davidians Say FBI Ignored Offer of Armored Firefighting Equipment

CNN News, April 21, 2000, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The FBI ignored a California company's offer of remote-controlled armored firefighting equipment less than two weeks before the deadly fire that ended the 1993 Waco siege, Branch Davidians said in a court filing Friday.

The FBI's on-scene commanders also did little to prepare for the possibility of fire despite Attorney General Janet Reno's directive that they be ready for all emergency contingencies, the plaintiffs said as part of their wrongful-death lawsuit against the government.

They point to a memo jotted down in the FBI's Washington command center 10 days before the siege's fiery end advising that the two on-scene commanders had decided "there would be no plan to fight a fire should one develop in the Davidian compound."

More than 80 Branch Davidians died during the inferno that consumed their flimsy wooden retreat on April 19, 1993, several hours into an FBI tear-gassing operation intended to end the 51-day siege.

The local volunteer fire department's personnel and fire trucks were kept away from the burning building -- a decision that FBI special agent in charge Jeffrey Jamar told Congress he made out of concern that the firefighters could be hit by Davidian gunfire or exploding ammunition.

But the plaintiffs, in a 58-page motion made public Friday that will be filed in federal court in Waco, Texas, say the FBI ignored an offer made by a California company -- Flamechek International _ to lend the government a Soviet T-55 combat tank reconfigured as armored firefighting equipment.

Flamechek's owner, Mira Slovak, told plaintiffs' lawyers in a deposition last month that he called an FBI office in California a week to 10 days before the siege's fiery end to offer the remote-controlled equipment.

Slovak said he followed up the bureau's request for more information by providing brochures and tank specifications but never heard back from the FBI.

Former FBI Assistant Director Larry Potts and other high-ranking officials testified during recent depositions that they were told such firefighting equipment didn't exist and that they knew nothing of the Flamechek offer.

"Never heard of that," Potts said.

"It was my understanding that (armored firefighting equipment) didn't exist," said Richard Rogers, who headed the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team at Waco. He testified he first heard of Flamechek's offer last month.

The plaintiffs aren't focusing only on the armored equipment. They also argue that the FBI commanders were derelict in not exploring other options such as water cannons or helicopters with water buckets.

"The most fitting assessment of the FBI's pathetic performance on this issue remains the comment of Stuart Gerson, acting attorney general before the confirmation of Janet Reno: 'Think about fire next time,"' the motion says.

The government has asked the federal judge presiding over the case to throw out the plaintiffs' claims relating to the fire, saying the FBI leaders' decisions are covered under a discretionary authority protection.

"The discretionary function exception protects policy-grounded judgment or choice," the Justice Department said in a court filing earlier this month. "Even if the on-scene commanders were negligent or abused their discretion by deciding not to have armored fire trucks -- or any other specific equipment -- available, those decisions would fall within the exception."

The government has long contended the Davidians themselves torched their retreat and caused their own deaths, whether by fire or gunshot.

The lawsuit heads to trial in mid-June.

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