Fire expert disputes government claim that Davidians set blaze

Waco Tribune-Herald, June 27, 2000
By Mark England

An expert witness for the plaintiffs on Monday attacked the government's contention that the Branch Davidians started the fire that destroyed Mount Carmel.

And two Davidians, Marjorie Thomas and Graeme Craddock, described their narrow escapes from the flames to U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith Jr. of Waco and the advisory jury hearing their $675 million wrongful-death lawsuit against the government.

Patrick Kennedy, a Chicago investigator who helped write the industry standards for fire investigations, told Houston attorney Mike Caddell that the government can't prove the Davidians set fires in three locations simultaneously. Caddell is the lead plaintiffs attorney.

Kennedy said the government's reliance on an infrared video to prove arson is "completely erroneous."

"It's never been used before," Kennedy said. "It's never been used since. There's no scientific evidence that you can tell anything from a FLIR (Forward-Looking Infrared video). There is no literature in fire investigation about using a FLIR."

Kennedy said the government also can't prove that accelerants were used in the three locations - dining room, chapel and southwest corner of Mount Carmel - where fires seemed to start simultaneously on April 19, 1993, leading to the deaths of David Koresh and 75 followers.

Samples were taken from all three areas to test for arson, Kennedy told Caddell.

A dog trained to alert at the smell of accelerants made 100 alerts going through the rubble of Mount Carmel, Kennedy said. Thirty hits came back positive for accelerants. Not all three areas, however, tested positive for accelerants, Kennedy said. The dining room, for example, tested negative.

"The (fire) code is clear," Kennedy said. "If you don't get a lab test, you don't get a positive for accelerants."

Kennedy said the government counted the dog's alerts as a positive indication for accelerants.

"We don't even know how the dog works," said Kennedy, noting that gasoline has 400 different compounds. "We do know this: He's not always right."

Kennedy rattled off several explanations for the simultaneous fires: arson; the leaking of fuel throughout Mount Carmel from the numerous propane cylinders, many of which were crushed; and the lack of firewalls, which can cause a fire to race through a structure's walls.

Showing a photograph of the stove in the ruins of the dining room at Mount Carmel, Kennedy noted the presence of one 100-pound propane cylinder and several smaller propane cylinders.

"How can they rule them out if they never examined them?" he asked. The cause of the fire at Mount Carmel can only be labeled as undetermined, Kennedy said.

But there is no doubt the plowing of tanks into Mount Carmel accelerated the fire, according to Kennedy.

"It made the fire burn hotter," Kennedy said. "It made the fire burn faster . . . Those incursions can't be ruled out as the cause of the fire." Marjorie Thomas, who suffered third-degree burns on half her body, gave the court a harrowing description of her escape from the Mount Carmel fire. She walked to the witness stand - actually a chair placed on the floor - with the help of a cane and sat on a cushion, still recovering from a March operation to remove scar tissue.

On the day of the fire, Thomas said she felt the building shake as a "frog," her name for tanks, delivered tear gas into the building.

"The roof of the building lifted up and dropped back down," Thomas said. A ferret round shot into Mount Carmel hit one woman, grazing her forehead, she testified. Thomas said she tried to throw the tear gas canisters back out.

"It was really hot," Thomas said. "I made a few attempts. I was able to throw one out of the building."

She stood guard duty the night before the fire, Thomas testified. That prompted government co-counsel Michael Bradford to ask if she would have shot an FBI agent trying to enter Mount Carmel.

"I wouldn't use the word 'shoot,' " Thomas said.

"What word would you use?" Bradford asked.

"Protect," Thomas said.

Smith later instructed the jurors they were only to use that portion of Thomas' testimony in considering whether the government acted reasonably in not allowing firefighters to enter Mount Carmel.

Thick smoke hampered her efforts to escape once the fire started, Thomas said.

"I could hear rushing, screaming, crying, people praying," Thomas said. ". . . I stopped where I was. I couldn't see anyone. I didn't know what had happened until it got quiet. I thought maybe they had found a way out, and I was still there."

Fire pushed her back after she entered a hallway leading to the dining area, Thomas said.

"I was making my way to the dining area, but the flames blocked my way," she said. "My foot touched someone."

Caddell asked whose foot she touched.

"Sheila Jr.," Thomas said, referring to the daughter of Davidian Sheila Martin, who left Mount Carmel during the siege to care for three other children.

The fire eventually caught up with Thomas, she testified.

"I could feel the jacket I was wearing melting," Thomas said. "By this time, my legs were moving out of control. They were burning."

Feeling her way along the walls, she got lost, Thomas said. Then she saw a "little flicker of light," actually daylight, coming from a room. She entered and escaped through a window.

Thomas denied that the Davidians made suicide plans on April 19. However, Thomas told Bradford there had been a plan to commit suicide if Koresh died. His body was to be put on a stretcher and taken outside, accompanied by his wives and children. Grenades would be taken, too.

"What were the grenades going to be used for?" Bradford asked.

"It was going to be used to end our lives," Thomas said.

Outside court, Bradford said Thomas' testimony gave credence to government concerns of "another Jonestown situation." However, Caddell dismissed the stretcher plan as a "fantasy."

Graeme Craddock, serving a prison sentence for possessing an unregistered destructive device (grenade) at Mount Carmel, said he was in the chapel when the fire started, according to a videotaped deposition. He heard Mark Wendel yell twice that Mount Carmel was on fire, Craddock said. The first time, he didn't see the fire. The second time, however, debris was falling like "black snow," Craddock said.

Craddock also said he heard a Davidian at one point yell, "light the fire." However, he said he didn't see anyone light a fire and was not aware of plans to start a fire.

Craddock escaped and hid for three hours in a cinderblock structure, but not before searching for a way upstairs. Craddock testified that he wanted to see what other Davidians were doing.

"I really didn't know what to do at the time," Craddock said. "David Koresh had told people, had told negotiators he wasn't going to come out. Whether that meant he wasn't going to come out because a machine was pushing through the building or he wasn't going to come out because of fire, I didn't know." Caddell said late Monday that he expects to wrap up his case today.

Former U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clark, representing Davidians such as Clive Doyle, filed a motion Monday protesting time limits set by Smith on presentations. However, Clark said he thinks Smith "is going to work with us on that."

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