WASHINGTON (AP) - For all the recent furor over the FBI's use of potentially incendiary tear gas canisters on the final day of the Waco siege, a lawyer suing the government on behalf of Branch Davidian survivors and relatives contends the inferno may have been triggered by other causes.
Cult leader David Koresh and some 80 followers perished during the fiery climax to the siege on April 19, 1993.
Michael Caddell, the lead lawyer in a wrongful-death lawsuit against the government, is wary of tying his legal case to the military canisters lobbed by federal agents. Alternate theories under examination include the possibility that the fire was caused by contact between exhaust from military tanks used in the assault and the flimsy wooden walls of the Davidians' compound, he said, adding that the exhaust could have reached 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit.
"There are a number of possible explanations and I don't want to get sucked in too much into the whole pyrotechnic issue," Caddell said in a recent interview. "It may turn out to be a red herring."
Federal officials have always said the fire was set by the Davidians, not agents - a position maintained after the FBI acknowledged last month that its agents fired a few pyrotechnic tear-gas projectiles on the siege's final day. There's no evidence those canisters, lobbed several hours before the fire, ignited the flames, they say.
That view is shared by an arson expert on the team that investigated the tragedy as part of the Justice Department's 1993 Waco probe.
"I still say what we came to the conclusion on at the end of our investigation down there still holds today, regardless of what they are saying about these pyrotechnic devices," said Thomas Hitchings, chief deputy fire marshal in Allegheny County, Pa.
Caddell and others who accuse the government of a cover-up are examining theories that:
Military tanks that punched holes into the building to insert non-burning tear gas knocked over lanterns the Davidians relied on after the FBI cut off electricity.
Flash-bang devices used by federal agents ignited the building. Filmmaker Michael McNulty, who has espoused that theory, claims such devices were found near the fire's origins. The government disputes his assertions.
Heat from the tanks' exhaust could have ignited the dwelling's wooden walls, which were reinforced with makeshift barricades of hay bales.
Caddell said a special forces operative told him of once trying to warm his gloved hands beneath the exhaust from such tanks, only to see his leather gloves ignite.
But a spokesman for General Dynamics Land Division, which manufactured the M728 Combat Engineer Vehicles used at Waco, said the tanks' diesel engines produce heat that "does not get hot enough to start a fire."
Attorney General Janet Reno insists the fire was set by the Davidians. But stung by the FBI's recent disclosure, she named former Republican Sen. John Danforth of Missouri to investigate whether there was a cover-up or other wrongdoing.
FBI officials declined to address the scenarios suggested by Caddell and other skeptics, saying the fire's genesis has been extensively reviewed. And Danforth's inquiry "would preclude us from making any comment," FBI spokesman Bill Carter said.
The independent arson investigators who combed the Waco ruins concluded the fire resulted from "an intentional act" by people inside the compound and that accelerants were used to speed the flames.
Fires were set in three locations, the team concluded. The fire began on the second floor's southeast corner, moments after a tank disengaged from that section's ground floor. Flames then were detected on the first floor's midsection and east side.
But former Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms arson investigator Richard L. Sherrow, hired by the plaintiffs, concluded the fire started in only one location, most likely when the tank rammed the southeast corner.
David Thibodeau, one of nine Davidians who survived the final assault, said he does not believe agents intentionally set the fire. But he blames the government for the conditions leading up to the tragedy.
"Although neither we nor the feds deliberately set Mount Carmel ablaze, the FBI must have been aware that the toxic brew they injected into our building in such enormous quantities would create a highly flammable condition that windy day," he writes in his new book.
For Caddell, the debate over who triggered the inferno ultimately may prove academic in a lawsuit that accuses the government of using excessive force throughout the operation.
"We do not have to prove how the fire started to win our lawsuit," he said. "But I think we will prove that the government's actions on April 19 contributed to the spread of the fire ... and the deaths of Davidians as a result of the fire.
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