Investigator for sect faults fire inquiry

Official: Demolition planned later

Dallas Morning News, June 27, 2000
By Lee Hancock

The government's examination of the Branch Davidian fire failed to identify dozens of propane tanks as potential fuel sources and failed to find burn or pour patterns in any of the three areas where government investigators contended that sect members deliberately set the compound fire, plaintiff's fire investigator Patrick Kennedy said.

"You can't say it's arson; it's not arson, it's accidental. The investigation is insufficient and inappropriate," said Mr. Kennedy, a private consultant who has helped investigate more than 2,500 fires and helped write nationally recognized fire investigation standards. "I'm just saying they didn't do their job right."

Offering some of the most animated testimony presented so far in the trial of the Branch Davidians' wrongful-death lawsuit, Mr. Kennedy said government investigators were particularly remiss in failing to examine how FBI tanks might have contributed to the blaze that leveled the compound on April 19, 1993. More than 80 Branch Davidians died.

The fire broke out about six hours after FBI tanks began ramming the building and spraying in tear gas to force the sect to end a 51-day standoff. The blaze also began less than an hour after FBI tanks smashed deep into the front of the building and demolished much of its rear.

Mr. Kennedy noted that one tank smashed into an area where government investigators said the first fire began and left within only a minute after the first heat from that blaze was spotted by an airborne FBI infrared camera. "That could have released fuel" by crushing propane tanks or lanterns known to be scattered throughout the compound, he said.

Smashed into 'kindling'

"The tanks' actions . . . made the fire burn hotter," he said. "It made the fire burn faster. It made the fire spread further. Those incursions cannot be ruled out as being a cause of the fire."

The tanks smashed compound walls into "kindling" and opened up massive ventilation flues for the day's 25-mph winds.

"Make it kindling, and then blow on it: It's like starting your camp fire out in the woods," he said.

The $675 million wrongful-death lawsuit filed by surviving Branch Davidians and relatives of those who died alleges that government tanks contributed to the spread of the blaze and that FBI commanders violated a Washington-approved plan when they sent the tanks deep into the building.

Lead plainttiff's lawyer Michael Caddell fought off vigorous government objections Monday and introduced internal government documents in which top FBI negotiators vigorously condemned the decision to send in tanks. Among the documents were a memo written to FBI commanders during the first week of the siege that warned violence would result from any attack on the compound.

A second 1993 document detailed post-siege statements by the FBI's highest-ranking negotiator and included his assessment that the FBI's commanders were acting out of anger and frustration. The agent, Gary Noesner, added that the decision to send tanks deep into the compound was "a fundamental flaw" that violated the bureau's operational plan.

"Any negotiator would have told them that dismantling the building would provoke a violent response," said Mr. Noesner, head of the FBI's crisis-management program. "That is what triggered the starting of the fires and shooting of the children."

Government lawyers have maintained that the sect alone started the fire and caused the final tragedy. In addition to citing the fire investigation, they have pointed to recorded conversations captured between Branch Davidians by FBI bugs that included talk of spreading fuel and setting fires. They have also cited testimony of Branch Davidian Graeme Craddock, an Australian who was among eight Branch Davidians convicted in a 1994 criminal trial that arose from the standoff.

Quotes from compound

Lawyers for the sect played parts of a video deposition for jurors on Monday in which Mr. Craddock acknowledged hearing others in the compound discussing spreading fuel and yelling to start a fire.

But he said that the Branch Davidian he heard discussing pouring flammables was actually yelling for another sect member to pour it "outside, not inside."

He added that another sect member whom he heard calling out orders to start a fire gave those instructions only after others had yelled that the building was ablaze. He said that he later heard a Branch Davidian yell, 'Don't light the fire.'"

Government lawyers questioned Mr. Kennedy closely Monday about Mr. Craddock's testimony and a laboratory finding that traces of flammable liquids were found in wreckage of the chapel where Mr. Craddock was at the time.

Mr. Kennedy said that was worth considering but did not justify the arson finding.

He noted that the government's investigators found acccelerants only in that area and found no traces of any flammables in a downstairs dining room identified as another ignition point for the compound blaze. He added that the kitchen was full of propane tanks that could have been crushed by FBI tanks but were never even identified as potential fuel sources.

Firetruck stopped

Also Monday, jurors heard testimony from a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper who described stopping a local volunteer department's truck manned by a lone firefighter from going to fight the compound blaze.

Sgt. David Keys said a call came over his DPS radio ordering all firetrucks to be stopped from going near the compound for more than 30 minutes after the fire started, adding , "We were told later it was for the security of the agents near the [Branch Davidian] building."

Lawyers for the sect have contended that the government should be held negligent for failing to let any firetrucks near the building until it was gutted. Government lawyers have argued, however, that FBI commanders acted properly because Branch Davidians had been firing at tanks that morning and posed a deadly threat to firefighters.

The afternoon's testimony ended with a videotaped deposition from a Florida man who offered remote-controlled, armored firefighting equipment to the FBI. Myra Slovak testified he was working with a Czech manufacturer to market rebuilt, Soviet tanks as armored fire equipment when the Branch Davidian siege began in 1993.

An émigré who said he had previously leased airplanes to another federal law enforcement agency, Mr. Slovak said he called an FBI agent in California to offer free use of one of the firefighting tanks in the Waco siege.

He said he spoke several times to agents in the two weeks before the Waco fire, but never heard back from them after an initial round of calls and faxes.

The second week of the Waco trial began Monday with a fire survivor's graphic description of the chaos, smoke and noise of the compound blaze.

'Screaming, crying'

British subject Marjorie Thomas, one of only nine sect members to survive the fire, recounted feeling her way through smoke and flames, hearing others inside scream and fall silent, and finally jumping to safety as her burning legs gave way.

"I could hear rushing, screaming, crying, people praying. ...Then it went quiet," she said, adding her legs collapsed from the impact of burns and her jacket melted around her before she escaped.

"I looked out of the window. I looked back into the building. ...I don't like heights, but I thought, it's either I live or die," testified Ms. Thomas, one of only nine Branch Davidians to survive the compound fire.

Pressed by government lawyers, the soft-spoken, frail woman insisted that she couldn't remember much else of what happened in the sect's 51-day standoff with the federal government.

Koresh's teachings

She acknowledged to U.S. Attorney Michael Bradford of Beaumont that Branch Davidian leader David Koresh taught his followers before the 1993 siege that they would go to war and their enemies would be from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the FBI.

She also acknowledged that she once was ready to kill herself at Mr. Koresh's command.

But she testified that she "could not recall" many key details of her post-fire statements to authorities about the sect's apocalyptic beliefs, including her 1993 testimony that Mr. Koresh plotted a group suicide early in the standoff and taught followers that they must kill for God.

She said she was under heavy medication and was still hospitalized for third degree burns over half her body when she gave a videotaped deposition for federal prosecutors in November 1993.

Her testimony veered even under gentle questioning from Mr. Caddell. At one point, she said she never saw anyone with a gun when the standoff began with a gunfight between the sect and federal agents.

After Mr. Caddell played videotaped excerpts from her 1993 deposition, Ms. Thomas acknowledged that three other women in her bedroom handed guns that day to others in the compound. But she testified she never saw anyone fire a gun.

Before Monday's testimony began, Judge Smith announced that a second juror had been excused for personal reasons, reducing the remaining panel of jurors to five. A juror was also excused last week for undisclosed personal problems.

The jury is serving as an advisory panel and the judge will render final judgment about whether the government shares blame for the 1993 tragedy. Judge Smith will separately decide a final issue that he decided earlier this month to separate from the Waco jury trial: whether government agents fired at the compound during the last hours of the siege.

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