Rubble blocked exit, Waco survivor testifies

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 29, 2000
By Terry Ganey

WACO, Texas - A Branch Davidian survivor testified Tuesday that damage caused by FBI tanks blocked an exit from the sect's complex when it caught fire.

But the survivor, Misty Dawn Ferguson, said she was able to get out of the burning complex by jumping through a hole in a wall that a tank had created.

Ferguson lost all her fingers in the fire seven years ago, in which about 80 people died. She is one of the survivors who, along with the relatives of some of the victims, are seeking millions of dollars in damages on their claims that government actions were responsible for the injuries and loss of life.

In a calm voice, Ferguson offered some of the most dramatic testimony yet in the trial of the plaintiffs' wrongful death suit. She was 17 at the time of the government's siege on April 19, 1993.

Ferguson said she had begun living at the sect's Mount Carmel complex near Waco about two years earlier, after accompanying her mother, Rita Riddle, there. Riddle left the complex about midway during the 51-day siege; she testified earlier in the trial that she hadn't taken her daughter with her because she thought her daughter would be safer inside the complex.

While converted tanks driven by FBI agents pumped tear gas into the structure, Ferguson stayed in an upstairs bedroom that had once been occupied by her mother. She said she stayed in her mother's room until tanks began plowing into it, buckling the floor.

"It didn't cave the floor in completely but it did cave it in to where you couldn't stand to walk on it," she said. "It sounded like a bunch of wood cracking and popping, and of course there was the loud noise of the tanks. The building was shaking."

Wearing a gas mask, Ferguson sought refuge in a room across the hall. She said she saw a tear gas canister fired into the room.

"It looked like steam coming out of it," Ferguson said.

After about 20 minutes there, Ferguson "felt heat underneath my feet." She said that when she tried to get out through a hallway, she found her way blocked by damage from the tanks.

"It was the only way out," she said. "The floor was caved in and before I knew it, I was engulfed in smoke. I couldn't see anything at that point."

Ferguson said she got down close to the floor and crawled toward light at the opposite end of the hallway. In the process, her hands were burned.

"In one of the rooms there was a hole where a tank had come in and I jumped from the building there," Ferguson said.

The Davidians claim FBI commanders endangered lives by ordering the tanks to plow into the structure to deliver tear gas six hours into the assault. They say the maneuver violated Attorney General Janet Reno's orders that agents were to wait 48 hours before demolishing the complex.

The government contends the Davidians endangered themselves by refusing orders to surrender after a gunfight between sect members and agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The government defense is that the Davidians started the fire and that their leader, David Koresh, led the sect's members to their deaths in fulfillment of his apocalyptic teachings.

Ferguson said she was not one of the many wives that Koresh had claimed for himself and that she had never had sex with him. But she said that she knew other women who were "married" to Koresh. Ferguson also said she knew some men at the complex bought and sold weapons, but that she was not armed and had never been trained to handle a gun.

She said that on the day of the initial ATF raid, she did not see anyone firing. Ferguson's uncle, James Riddle, died during the last day of the siege, but her aunt, Ruth Riddle, survived.

At the end of Ferguson's testimony, one of the five jurors submitted a question asking why she had stayed after her mother left. Judge Smith refused to permit the question, because lawyers for both sides had agreed that the Davidians' reasons for staying in the complex would not be part of the trial.

In other developments Tuesday:

  • Myra Slovak, an employee of a Czech company, testified that he offered an FBI agent in Florida the use of an armored firefighting tank to deal with events at Waco, but that the offer was not accepted. Testimony raised questions about whether the tank would have been effective and whether it was even in the United States at the time of the siege.

  • Several former Davidians testified by deposition that they never heard Koresh advocate suicide and that the sect disapproved of suicide. They also said Koresh preached about the end of the world and that he considered all of the women in the complex to be his wives.

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