Davidian survivor recalls fire, chaos

Associated Press, June 26, 2000

WACO – A survivor of the government's raid on the Branch Davidian complex testified Monday about a chaotic scene as fire enveloped the compound.

"I could hear rushing, screaming, crying, people praying,'' Marjorie Thomas said. "You could hear the flames really roaring, things popping. It was noisy.''

Thomas jumped from a window and was one of nine sect members who survived the last day of the 51-day standoff in 1993, although she suffered third-degree burns over half of her body. Eighty other Davidians died.

Branch Davidian survivors and family members are seeking $675 million in damages from the government. Thomas' testimony came at the start of the trial's second week.

The soft-spoken woman, who now lives in Great Britain, testified that sect members never planned to start a fire or commit suicide.

But during cross examination, U.S. Attorney Michael Bradford pointed out that in her 1993 deposition Thomas recalled that sect leader David Koresh talked more than once about suicide plans. The 1993 deposition was used in the 1994 criminal trial of five Davidians, who were convicted of voluntary manslaughter in the deaths of four federal agents.

Jurors last week heard a taped 911 call about the deadly 1993 raid that started the standoff at the group's compound. Testimony also touched on the fire's origins and the absence of firefighting equipment at the scene.

Thomas testified Monday that she remembered seeing an approaching helicopter and someone leaning out and firing a gun on Feb. 28, 1993, the day federal agents tried to serve search and arrest warrants on Koresh.

"I could see the gun from the helicopter and when it fired, the bullet came through the other window in the room, not the window I was looking out of. We all got down on the floor,'' she said. "By this time some more of the bullets were coming through the sheet rock and going across the room.''

Under cross-examination, she told Bradford that she was not sure if the bullet actually came from the helicopter. In her 1993 deposition, Thomas had said she could not tell if the bullets that hit the window of her room came from the helicopter or somewhere else.

Bradford also referred to her 1993 interview with the Texas Rangers, in which she said some male Davidians bragged about shooting agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Monday, Thomas said she could not remember making such statements.

Thomas, 30 at the time of the raid, described the scene during the fire as "black and dark.''

"I could feel the jacket I was wearing melting, and I was finding it difficult to move myself,'' she said. "I thought, 'It's either I live or die.' I put my hand on my head and leaned on the window, and I was out of the building.''

Earlier Monday, U.S. District Judge Walter Smith said a juror had been excused because of illness, bringing the remaining pool to five. Another juror was excused last week for personal reasons.

Among other things, plaintiffs contend that government agents fired indiscriminately during the raid; violated a plan approved by Attorney General Janet Reno when they punched holes into the building to spray tear gas inside; contributed to or caused at least some of the three fires that engulfed the compound; and failed to have firefighting equipment at the scene.

Tom Rowan said so-called ``ferret rounds'' - plastic canisters containing tear gas - were launched from tanks into the complex on April 19, 1993, to try to force David Koresh and his Davidian followers from their rickety wooden complex. Experts say ferret rounds are not considered incendiary devices.

But the lead attorney for the sects' survivors and family members suing the government, Michael Caddell, tried to get the agent to talk about more incendiary munitions, asking if the FBI used ``military rounds,'' metallic canisters that potentially could be flammable devices.

``I don't recall if we had military rounds in our (tank) or not,'' Rowan said, under questioning by Caddell. ``I don't believe I've ever fired a military round.''

Other FBI agents, including Joseph Servel and Michael Sackett, have said a fire erupted in the kitchen soon after they saw a tank insert tear gas into the room.

``We saw smoke within seconds. We saw flames and then the smoke started getting really thick,'' Servel, a tank commander, testified Thursday.

Sackett said he saw flames in that area about 15 minutes after seeing the smoke.

Under cross-examination by government attorneys, Servel, Rowan and Sackett said they observed what appeared to be muzzle flashes from gunfire in several windows before the fire started.

``I saw muzzle flashes, curtains moving, and glass breaking,'' Rowan said Friday.

Attorneys representing survivors and family members in a $675 million wrongful death lawsuit against the federal government contend agents started the fire through the use of potentially incendiary tear gas canisters or by knocking over kerosene lanterns.

Government lawyers say sect leader David Koresh and some 80 followers intentionally started three fires that ultimately engulfed the complex and ended the 51-day siege.

In other testimony Friday, Steve McGavin, an FBI supervisory agent who helped draft proposals to remove the Davidians, said agents had several rounds of the military-style canisters in their possession - handed over by local law enforcement agencies when supplies of the ferret canisters became low - but he didn't know if the military rounds were returned unused.

Before testimony resumed Friday morning, U.S. District Judge Walter Smith excluded testimony of one of the plaintiff's expert witness, Frank Johnson, an engineer. Smith said his testimony over whether exits to the compound were blocked by debris left in the wake of tanks penetrating the building would confuse jurors.

At midmorning, Smith's growing impatience with repetitive questioning became evident when he imposed a 40-hour time limit on both the plaintiffs' and the government's lawyers.

The judge noted at Friday's lunch break that the plaintiffs already had logged in more than half their time.

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