Waco survivor says tank damage hampered escape

She shows disfiguring burns at wrongful-death trial

The Dallas Morning News, June 28, 2000
By Lee Hancock

WACO - The youngest survivor of the Branch Davidian fire told jurors in a federal wrongful-death lawsuit Tuesday that extensive tank damage on the final day of the 1993 siege buckled upper floors, blocked stairways and nearly cut off her escape from the burning building.

"I tried to get out the hallway, but I couldn't go that way. . . . That was the only way out," testified 24-year-old Misty Ferguson, describing her final minutes in the smoke-filled, damaged building. "I didn't want to be burned."

Ms. Ferguson told jurors that she noticed her hands were badly burned after leaping from the second story of the building. She offered mute evidence of her injuries as she took the witness stand, raising a right arm to expose the stump of a hand with no fingers.

She also suffered severe facial burns and lost the fingers on her left hand in the fire that took the lives of 80 Branch Davidians on April 19, 1993.

Ms. Ferguson, a North Carolina resident who was 17 at the time of the fire, appeared as the final witness for plaintiffs represented by lead lawyer Michael Caddell.

Her account framed a five-day trial presentation that began with the testimony of her mother, Rita Riddle, who left the compound during the siege.

Speaking in a quiet voice, Ms. Ferguson testified that she noticed the fire "15 to 25 minutes" after a tank ripped up much of the second-story bedroom where she had been waiting out the FBI's tear-gas assault.

"The floor caved in. . . . You couldn't walk or stand on it," she said, adding that she moved away from the damage and soon noticed smoke in the building.

She said she ran down a hall hot from flames below and tried to head to a stairway, only to find it blocked by damage from the tanks.

Ms. Ferguson said she was blinded by smoke but finally escaped, following glimmers of light to a hole left by one of the tanks.

Mr. Caddell finished presenting his case Tuesday by interspersing deposition testimony from sect members about the sect's beliefs and lifestyle with depositions of FBI agents and employees in the final fiery hours of the Waco siege.

Notably absent from his final presentation were the FBI's two commanders in Waco, Jeffrey Jamar and Richard Rogers.

Mr. Caddell initially said he would call the overall Waco commander and the head of the FBI's hostage rescue team to testify about their actions and decisions during the final tank and tear-gas assault on the compound.

The compound fire broke out about six hours after the operation began and less than an hour after the two men ordered several tanks to drive deep into the wooden building.

The $675 million wrongful-death lawsuit alleges that FBI commanders violated a Washington-approved plan when they ordered the tanks to begin demolishing the building. Government lawyers deny that, saying sect members alone caused the tragedy by provoking a shootout at the start of the siege and then ending the 51-day standoff with the torching of their home.

Mr. Caddell said he decided to wait and see whether government attorneys will make good on promises in their opening statements to allow jurors to hear from the two men.

On Tuesday, he read jurors excerpts from other FBI officials' testimony, including statements from one agent that the tanks were sent deep into the building after officials learned that Mr. Koresh and his lieutenants were holed up in an inner concrete room.

FBI agent Lawrence Bonney said officials reached that conclusion in part because "the building was coming down around them at that point."

Mr. Caddell also read testimony from an FBI pilot who recalled telling colleagues shortly before the compound burned that the Branch Davidians would soon have no building left to hide in.

"I recall some remarks that . . . people were going to have to get out pretty soon," testified the pilot, FBI Agent Bruce Stofko.

One member of the FBI's hostage-rescue team who helped fire tear-gas rounds during the assault testified that he wouldn't have driven a tank into the building, because "we weren't going to drive the thing blindly into the building with people in there."

The agent, Rick Intellini, also recounted hearing another FBI agent tell congressional investigators last year that he saw smoke billow from the compound kitchen "less than 30 seconds" after firing tear gas there.

FBI agents have maintained that they used only nonburning tear gas inside the building, but Mr. Caddell has argued that they were known to be running out of nonburning gas canisters by the time those rounds were fired.

He has tried to suggest to jurors that the smoke was characteristic of the white smoke from burning military tear-gas grenades.

Gas grenades

FBI officials admitted last year that they had fired at least two of the pyrotechnic gas grenades at an underground construction site near the compound.

Also among Mr. Caddell's final presentation were excerpts from the deposition of a Texas Ranger who found proof that at least one of the military rounds was photographed by crime-scene photographers after the siege.

The Ranger, Joey Gordon, acknowledged that the round later disappeared and was never logged into evidence records.

He said his inquiry also found that at least five pyrotechnic "flash-bang" grenades that were logged into evidence after being found in the compound wreckage were mislabeled as "silencers" by the FBI laboratory.

2nd plaintiffs' group

The trial shifted late Tuesday to testimony from a second group of plaintiffs represented by former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark.

That group that includes most of the sect members who survived the 51-day standoff and who continue to embrace the teachings of their late leader and self-proclaimed doomsday prophet, David Koresh.

Mr. Clark's first witness, Australian emigre Clive Doyle, is one of three sect members acquitted of federal criminal charges arising from the siege and the shootout that began it.

That gunbattle erupted on Feb. 28, 1993, as more than 70 agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms descended on the sect's rural compound to search for illegal weapons and arrest Mr. Koresh.

Four agents and six Branch Davidians died.

The lawsuit alleges that ATF agents fired indiscriminately and used excessive force, but government lawyers contend that the agents responded properly after being ambushed by the sect.

Mr. Doyle - like other siege and fire survivors - insisted that their group was strongly opposed to suicide and focused on Bible studies - not guns, violence or a coming war with outside authority.

Earlier Tuesday, Ms. Ferguson had recounted how she moved to Mount Carmel with her mother and gradually became interested in their intensive Bible studies and beliefs. Before and after her time at Mount Carmel, she said, she never regularly attended church.

She and other sect members said that the studies offered by Mr. Koresh did not include talk of guns and fighting the government. She prompted incredulity from government lawyers when she maintained that she said she never handled a gun or even saw one at Mount Carmel, even on the day of the shootout.

Authorities found more than 300 guns - including .50-caliber rifles and 48 illegally converted machine guns - in the compound after the fire.

Another adult sect member whose deposition was read to jurors acknowledged that the group was particularly interested in the sections of the Bible dealing with the apocalypse.

Australian Oliver Gyarfas, whose pregnant 17-year-old daughter, Aisha, died in the fire, said sect members considered Mr. Koresh a prophet who received "visions" about those sections of the Bible.

He acknowledged that Mr. Koresh's teachings led his daughter and other women to become his wives and bear his children.

But he said that Mr. Koresh never taught that the end of the world would come with tanks, fire or gunfire and that he never taught followers that FBI and ATF agents were to be fought as the biblical "Beast" from the book of Revelations."

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