Jurors hear testimony from survivor of blaze at Davidians' compound

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 27, 2000
By Terry Ganey

WACO, Texas - "I heard screams. I could hear crying. People were praying."

With those words, Marjorie Thomas, a fire-scarred survivor of the government siege at Waco, described the last moments of the Branch Davidians as flames engulfed their complex in 1993.

"I stayed where I was," said Thomas, who was in a bedroom on the second floor when the complex caught fire. "Then, things got quiet. I thought maybe they found a way to get out."

In fact, most of the people had died. About 80 Davidians - including 20 children - died April 19, 1993, during the final day of the government's siege. Some died from gunshots, but most succumbed to the effects of the fire. Thomas, 30 at the time of the siege, was one of nine to get out alive.

Her testimony Monday in federal court was the most compelling so far in the week-old trial of the Davidians' wrongful death case against the government. It was also the most conflicting, because it was sometimes at odds with sworn statements she gave seven years ago.

For example, Thomas testified that government helicopters fired on the complex during a raid by federal agents Feb. 28, 1993. But in a sworn statement she made shortly after the event, she said she did not know the source of the gunfire.

Thomas, who was burned on about half of her body, still suffers from her injuries. Her hands are scarred from the flames, and she used a cane to walk slowly into the courtroom. She spoke in a soft voice for more than 90 minutes.

A Briton, Thomas joined the Davidians about a year before the government siege began. She was there during the initial raid by agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and when the FBI attempted to evict the Davidians with tear gas. After six hours of the gas attack, three separate fires broke out.

Thomas said thick smoke had kept her from seeing a way out of the building. At one point, she stepped on the hand of a person lying on the floor.

"I felt along the wall. You could hear the flames roaring. Things were popping. It was noisy. I could feel the jacket I was wearing melting."

Thomas saw a bright spot in the smoke and worked her way to it. She found an open window and jumped out.

Thomas is one of the plaintiffs in the case, which was brought by survivors and relatives of those who died. They are seeking millions of dollars in compensation, claiming that actions by federal agents contributed to the deaths and injuries.

The government has denied responsibility for the fires, which it says were set by the Branch Davidians.

Thomas said that on the day of the raid by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, she and her roommates were looking from a window at approaching helicopters.

"I could see the gun from the helicopter, and then he fired," said Thomas. "The bullet came through one of the other windows in the room. We all got down on the floor. By this time, some more of the bullets were coming through the sheet rock and coming across the room."

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has long denied that shots were fired from the helicopters. During cross-examination by government lawyers, Thomas was confronted with a sworn statement she made in 1993. She said then that she didn't know whether the man in the helicopter was armed and that she didn't know whether the shots came from the helicopter. In her testimony Monday, Thomas said she didn't remember giving the statement.

In other testimony Monday, Patrick Kennedy, a fire investigator hired by the Davidians, challenged the government's claim that the Davidians had started the fires. Kennedy said it could not be determined whether the fire was arson or an accident. He said the cause is unknown and called the government's fire investigation inadequate.

"They don't know the cause, and they don't know who is responsible," Kennedy said. He said there was "no doubt" that the damage to the complex from FBI tanks ramming it to insert tear gas caused the fire to burn faster, hotter and spread farther.

When the tanks plowed into the wooden structure, he said, walls were broken up into fuel, and more ventilation was developed that would feed air to the fire.

"Not that somebody did that on purpose, but the effect is the same," Kennedy said. "You make it kindling, and you blow on it. It's like starting your campfire out in the woods."

Earlier Monday, Graeme Craddock, a Davidian survivor, said in a videotaped deposition that he had heard another sect member talking about spreading fuel and calling on others to start a fire.

Davidian lawyers won a major concession when U.S. District Judge Walter Smith Jr. allowed them to enter into evidence warnings that FBI negotiators gave to on-scene commanders.

"If the compound is attacked, in all probability, David Koresh and his followers will fight back to the death to defend their property and their faith, as they believe they did on Feb. 28, 1993," said an internal memo written six weeks before the gas attack. The memo was written by Peter Smerick and Mark Young, FBI psychological profilers.

"If that occurs, there will have to be an HRT (hostage rescue team) response and the possibility of a tremendous loss of life, both within the compound, and of Bureau personnel," the memo said. It went on to say that the news media, the public and Congress will ask, "Why couldn't you just wait them out?"

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