Waco still trying to shake negative link to Branch Davidian siege

Associated Press/April 15, 2003
By Angela K. Brown

Waco, Texas -- During business trips across the country, Mayor Linda Ethridge likes to talk about Waco's small-town comforts and big-city amenities, the new programs at Baylor University and the local plant that makes Snickers candy bars.

She can name famous native Wacoans - comedian Steve Martin, author Robert Fulghum and former Texas Gov. Ann Richards among them. Ethridge will talk about the Dr Pepper Museum, honoring the soft drink created here in 1885 and the expansion project at the award-winning zoo.

She and other city leaders don't mention the 1993 standoff at a religious sect's compound that burned to the ground and left nearly 80 people dead - unless someone asks about it.

And that happens sometimes, even now.

"For some people, that association is still there," Ethridge said. "You'll have random interchanges with people, but it's a little less often."

The Branch Davidian site was some 10 miles east of the city, down a two-lane winding road through farmland and then off a dusty road. The group had been there quietly for decades but had been growing since the mid-1980s arrival of leader David Koresh.

Few in Waco even paid attention to them until Feb. 28, 1993, when federal agents tried to arrest Koresh for stockpiling illegal weapons. Four lawmen and six sect members died in the shootout following the raid, which led to a 51-day standoff.

Day after day, for nearly two months, people across the world heard about a town called Waco and saw television images of the rudimentary compound buildings rising out of the wind-swept prairie.

They saw authorities clad in cowboy hats and boots, guns slung in hip holsters. They heard late-night television comedians call the town "Wacko."

Then on April 19, 1993, viewers saw the inferno.

"People were watching the Branch Davidian events unfold, and it sort of engraved that association to Waco in the minds of many people," said Ethridge, who was elected to the City Council in 1993 and mayor in 2000. "And a lot of that played to existing stereotypes: It was Texas, there were guns and it involved religion."

Many of Waco's 113,000 residents say it's an unfair association because the incident was outside city limits and involved federal agencies.

"Do they associate airplane crashes with the city where it happened?" said Joe T. Hayward, 81, a retired professor. "What bothers me are people who don't look at the facts and associate anything they can with a tragedy."

Some locals have little sympathy for surviving Davidians who claim the blaze was started after military vehicles rammed the buildings and sprayed tear gas inside.

A 2000 report on the final government investigation said the Davidians started the fire and shot each other - even some of the two dozen youngsters - in a mass suicide, ending the standoff.

"It was a tragedy but a tragedy that didn't have to happen, and it could have happened anywhere," Hayward said.

In the months after the compound burned, city leaders didn't notice a drop in tourism. But folks stopping by the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce wanted to know all about the Branch Davidians and how to get to the site.

After lengthy discussions on how to handle the issue, officials decided to have maps printed.

"It's a historical event, and you can't deny it happened. If we did, we'd look like we were trying to hide something," said Jack Stewart, president and CEO of the chamber. "We really had nothing to do with it, other than geography."

As time has passed, the maps have run out, and fewer people inquire about the out-of-the-way site with no signs or markers.

Those living nearby say several hundred people stop each year at the site, which now has a one-room visitors center, some memorial plaques and a chapel built on the compound remnants. A grove of 82 trees was planted several years ago, one representing each victim, including some unborn children.

Meanwhile, city officials have been busy touting Waco as a neighbor to President Bush, who several times a year visits his 1,600-acre ranch about 20 miles away in Crawford.

Because Crawford has no motels and few restaurants, the media and those traveling with Bush must stay in Waco - where city officials have seized what they call a golden opportunity to showcase hometown hospitality.

Each time Bush goes to his "Western White House" or appears in Waco, the Chamber of Commerce distributes media kits containing a calendar of events, list of restaurants and information on laundry and other services. The chamber even sets up a hot line for the visiting media to call with questions day or night.

Now, reporters seem interested in finding out about Waco's history and attractions, and they rarely bring up the Branch Davidian standoff, Stewart said.

"We've been fortunate," he said. "We felt strongly that the president's residence would have a positive impact on Waco's image, and that's happened."

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