Agent says gas didn't start fire

Government starts winding up defense in wrongful-death suit

Dallas Morning News, July 13, 2000
By Lee Hancock

WACO – An FBI agent acknowledged Wednesday that he fired three pyrotechnic tear-gas rounds on the final day of the Branch Davidian siege but said they didn't go into the sect's building and were fired hours before it burned.

Agent David Corderman denied sending any of the gas devices into the sect's kitchen, insisting that the three rounds he shot into that area of the building just after noon were all nonburning, plastic "ferret" gas grenades.

He and other agents involved in an April 19, 1993, tear-gas assault on the compound have testified in the Branch Davidian wrongful-death trial that they saw white smoke wafting out of the kitchen area just after those rounds were fired. Agent Corderman acknowledged Wednesday that pyrotechnic gas rounds expel white smoke when fired, but he said the smoke he saw in the kitchen was "white smoke from a fire."

A government fire expert also testified Wednesday that such devices were "very unlikely" to have started any of the three fires that leveled the Davidian compound with more than 80 sect members inside on April 19.

University of Maryland engineering professor James Quintiere told jurors in the wrongful-death trial that the outbreak of three separate blazes around the building within a two-minute period "was highly unusual for anything accidental. ... It's very indicative of some coordination of activities within the compound."

He added that their rapid spread "was only consistent with accelerated fires, and I believe, the use of flammable liquids."

Government lawyers offered his testimony as they began wrapping up their defense of the $675 million wrongful-death case.

The lawsuit alleges that government tanks used to insert tear gas into the building could have touched off or helped spread the April 19 fire. It also alleges that FBI commanders in Waco, Jeffrey Jamar and Richard Rogers, violated Washington-approved plans for the assault when they ordered the tanks to drive deep into the compound and start demolishing its rear gymnasium.

But the government's defense team has tried to convince jurors that sect members deliberately torched their home in a mass suicide ordered by their self-proclaimed messiah, David Koresh. Much of the week's testimony has focused on FBI agents involved in the tear-gas assault who recounted watching compound occupants appearing to spread something or make motions consistent with lighting fires just before the compound burned.

Lawyers for the sect have challenged those accounts, pointing out that they were not supported by photos and videos shot just before the fire or documented in the minute-by-minute FBI logs used to record what agents saw, heard and did in Waco on April 19.

In one case, they noted, an agent was more than a half-mile away and equipped only with hand-held binoculars when he said that he saw someone who appeared to be lighting a fire.

Their fire expert testified earlier in the case that Dr. Quintiere's analysis of the fire was scientifically invalid and the entire government fire investigation was too flawed to reach any acceptable conclusion about what started the compound blaze.

Tanks' role

The plaintiffs' expert tried to suggest that tanks bashing holes and driving deep into the building could have started the fire by knocking over Coleman lanterns and kerosene lamps being used to light the building. He said tanks also could have crushed propane tanks, causing gas leaks that could have been ignited by burning tear-gas rounds or other government actions.

On Wednesday, Dr. Quintiere dismissed those scenarios. He said Coleman lanterns hold only a pint of fuel and burn gas through fragile wicks that break and extinguish easily when knocked over. He also noted that a fire fueled by a propane leak would have been immediately obvious because it would have been characterized by a dramatic and instantaneous gas ignition.

He said a fire caused by a crushed or tipped lantern would also have shown up immediately on the forward-looking infrared or FLIR video taken from an FBI airplane on April 19. The infrared camera used by the FBI records a video image by sensing minute differences in temperatures of objects.

He showed jurors excerpts from that video, including flashes of light in three separate areas that he said were ignition points for each of the three fires that burned the building.

"If a lantern had been knocked over, it would have been seen on the FLIR," Dr. Quintiere said. "Instead, we saw nothing, nothing, nothing."

Plaintiff's lawyer Michael Caddell questioned the engineer closely about how he could conclude anything about the ignition point and cause of fires using only a heat-sensing instrument such as an infrared video camera.

Dr. Quintiere's evaluation, initially prepared for the government's 1993 fire investigation but later used in a 1994 criminal trial, was based on his analysis of the infrared video, still photos and commercial TV footage of the April 19 fire.

Reviewing his conclusions about the first fire spotted on the FLIR – a hot-spot in a second-story tower of the compound – the lawyer noted that the engineer could not say precisely what was in that room.

"You don't know what started that fire, do you? You cannot identify the ignition point for the fire. You cannot identify the initial fuel for the fire," the lawyer said. "Can you identify the point of origin of the fire of that bedroom?"

"I believe it was in the vicinity of the first window," Dr. Quintiere responded, pointing out a white flash indicating heat on the infrared recording.

Under cross-examination, Dr. Quintiere remained adamant that all fires detected by the infrared camera developed too quickly to be accidental. He said the first fire – in the upper tower – could not have been caused by the actions of a tank because it came more than a minute and a half after a tank hit that area.

Earlier Wednesday, the agent who drove that tank on April 19 told jurors that he did not believe his penetrations into the building closed escape routes.

The agent, R.J. Craig, said his first assignment that morning was to ram a hole in a corner of the building with the tank's boom so that gas could be sprayed in to keep Branch Davidians from a trap door leading to an underground bus.

A Fort Worth pathologist who autopsied the Branch Davidian dead after the fire testified in a 1994 criminal trial that the tank blocked the trap door with debris. The pathologist testified that six women's bodies were found in the hallway near the trap door, and he said they appeared to have been trying to get through it when they were overcome by the fire.

Agent Craig said he was later sent to the front of the building to try to gas its central tower. He said he got that assignment after FBI commanders learned from eavesdropping devices that sect members might be taking shelter in a concrete room at the base of the tower.

He said he got near the room but never penetrated or gassed it. Despite driving the 56-ton tank at least 20 feet into the building, he said, he did not hit any interior walls or leave the front entrance and stairway impassable. He insisted that he never touched an inside wall, even after Mr. Caddell displayed FBI diagrams and descriptions by surviving sect members that showed interior walls within 10 feet of where his tank entered the building.

One Branch Davidian survivor whose testimony has been used extensively by government lawyers has described seeing the building's main hallway cut off completely by the tank.

Mr. Caddell also questioned Agent Corderman closely on his use of pyrotechnic gas rounds. FBI officials insisted for six years that no pyrotechnic gas was used on April 19, and Attorney General Janet Reno told Congress after the fire that she expressly banned anything capable of sparking fires in the gassing operation.

The truth

Federal officials were forced to admit that pyrotechnic rounds were fired in Waco after a former FBI official told The Dallas Morning News last fall that their use was "common knowledge" among members of the bureau's hostage-rescue team.

On Wednesday, Agent Corderman said he had "approximately 20" of the pyrotechnic or "military" gas rounds in his armored vehicle on April 19. He acknowledged that the FBI began running out of nonflammable gas within an hour after starting their assault, but he maintained that he only fired three rounds at an area adjoining the compound. He said all were aimed at a covered entrance leading to the underground bus and that all bounced off its roof.


He said he got approval to fire three of the rounds from Mr. Rogers, the hostage-rescue team commander. He added that Mr. Rogers had previously told him "the plan as I understand it was that military rounds were authorized, if we got permission to use those rounds."

At one point, U.S. District Judge Walter Smith questioned the agent. "What was the time frame in which you fired military gas rounds?" he asked.

"At approximately 8 o'clock in the morning," came the reply.

"Did you see any fire as a result of those three rounds?" the judge asked.

"No sir," the agent responded.

Both sides are expected to complete final arguments by Friday. The case will then go to a five-member advisory jury called by Judge Smith to help him decide whether the government should be deemed negligent.

Judge Smith has indicated that he will probably wait to resolve the remaining issue in the case, the allegations that government agents fired at the compound on April 19, before he issues a final ruling.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.