When I was near Waco last Saturday, I decided to drive by Mount Carmel, the place where David Koresh and about 80 of his Branch Davidian followers died in their flaming compound seven years ago.
The catastrophe that unfolded before our eyes on television intruded on our minds again this summer when special counsel John C. Danforth issued a preliminary report of an investigation saying that the Davidians themselves, not the federal government, set the fire that destroyed the sprawling makeshift religious complex.
Assigning blame for the fire, of course, does not reduce the magnitude of the tragedy in which innocent children perished, supposedly in the name of religion. Now the 77 acres, which surviving Branch Davidians still see as holy ground, are a place of curiosity. And also a shrine.
Also, it remains a battleground of sorts. Three different groups of Davidians are vying for the rights to the property.
Eighty granite markers with names of all known to have died in the fire are near the property's center. Each one is marked by a flowering crape myrtle. One of the markers reads "David Koresh - April 19, 1993 - Age 33."
A handsome new Branch Davidian church built by volunteers and opened in April now stands near the memorials to the dead. A granite plaque in front of the church thanks "benefactors who have faithfully answered the quiet call to rebuild upon the ashes."
An eerie stagnant lake on the land symbolized to me the dark tragedy that unfolded there. Also, there are two burnt-out buses, one of Koresh's scorched motorcycles and a green Volkswagen.
Near the church is a granite stone memorializing four federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms officers who were killed as they tried to arrest Koresh at the Branch Davidian compound on Feb. 28, 1993. Six Davidians also died that day.
I arrived on the Branch Davidian Sabbath, and a church service led by those who still see Koresh as an earthly messiah was going on in a mobile home near the entrance. About five cars were parked outside. I didn't intrude. That group is led by Clive Doyle, a survivor of the fire, his mother Edna Doyle, and Sheila Martin.
A rival Davidian, Amo Bishop Roden, welcomed visitors to the property from a spot near the entrance as she has done for years. Roden claims the right to the property because she was married, by contract she says, to the late George Roden, whose parents, Lois and Ben Roden, followed teachings of V.T. Houteff and created the group known as Branch Davidians in 1955.
She heartily disagrees with those who believe Koresh was a prophet. "They still see David Koresh as a holy man of God," she said. "If they are sincere, I think they are misguided. I thought he was a very bad man." Another group claiming the right to the property is led by Charlie Pace, who also is not a follower of Koresh, but who is an outspoken opponent to Amo Bishop Roden's assertions.
Pace, a construction worker, lives in a mobile home on the east end of Mount Carmel. He was a part of the Branch Davidians during the Roden era. But his loyalty extends to Lois and Ben Roden, the early leaders of the Branch Davidians. He claims their son, George Roden, deserted the movement. All three groups consider the property hallowed ground.
"It is holy ground, made even holier by what happened here," said Pace. Pace said he believes Koresh was a false prophet. But he believes he had an important role in Bible prophecy and that his life and death were predicted by Scriptures. He says Koresh and his followers' violent end is referred to in Ezekiel 9:1-2.
The Scripture declares: "Cause them that have charge over the city to draw near, even every man with a destroying weapon in his hand. And, behold, six men came from the way of the higher gate, which lieth toward the north, and every man with a slaughter weapon in his hand. ..."
Earlier, Pace had held his own separate Sabbath Day worship service at Mount Carmel. His group has its own church in a concrete block building marked with a sign, "The Branch. Congregation of the Lord (YHVH) Our Righteousness."
Pace, Amo Roden, the Doyles, Sheila Martin and other Branch Davidians around the world disagree on many things. But all have complicated end-of-the-world theology. All believe that God will someday return and establish the kingdom of heaven on earth.
And many believe that a peaceful prairie in the heart of Central Texas - the holy ground of Mount Carmel - will be the center of that heavenly kingdom.