On the day the FBI stormed the HQ of the Branch Davidian sect in Waco, bringing a 51-day siege to a brutal and bloody end, Clive Doyle emerged from the blazing compound having lost everything, including his youngest daughter.
Shari, 18, was one of 86 people to die in the carnage at Waco, the victims also including 24 children, four federal agents and the cult leader David Koresh.
Today, as the anniversary of its finale on April 19, 1993, approaches, Doyle, 79, still holds tight the one thing he emerged with 27 years ago – his faith in Koresh, who to his followers was the Messiah, but to the outside world was a madman.
Doyle says: “Most people think we were brainwashed and deceived, led into some cult. They think our church members didn’t know what they were doing. It was never the case.
“I still believe in David and I still believe in most everything he taught.
“I feel the same about David today as I did then. If David was a charlatan or a crook, He allowed him to do it.
“God is responsible. He could have zapped him. He could have put a stop to it. He didn’t.”
Koresh abused Doyle’s two daughters, having sex with Shari when she was just 14. Koresh took both Shari and her sister Karen, who was three years older, as “wives”, but Doyle says: “David only had one wife, but he believed God told him, from time to time, to take some of the other women, to have sex with them.
“If the girls made that choice to be with him that was their choice.
“If you buy into the idea that David was a messenger of God then what he does or says is easier to cope with than if you stand off judging. If you accept that God is speaking through this person... if he does something that makes you upset, you have to stop and say, ‘OK, I may not like it, but if this is God’s will, then the one who is responsible is the guy upstairs’.”
Doyle was born in Australia and 30 of the sect members inside the Mount Carmel compound were British. Only six of them survived.
The siege began when agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) raided the Davidian base looking for illegal firearms on February 28, 1993.
Koresh had bought numerous weapons and ammunition from a gun shop that was closing down, hoping to sell them to make money for his church.
After attempting to storm the compound, the ATF were met with heavy gunfire from inside. Four ATF agents and six Davidians were killed, and the siege began.
Officials later said Koresh and his followers had been tipped off about the raid by the local postman, who had been alerted by a TV crew, but Doyle says the Davidians knew for months they were being watched.
“We were hearing all kinds of gossip. There was an air for weeks about what was going to happen.
“The ATF wanted people to believe when the TV guy tipped off the mailman, and the mailman then called us to tip us off, that we were all waiting to gun them down.
“It was all a bunch of crock. They’d been tipping their hand for months. We knew something was coming.”
After the botched raid, the FBI descended on Waco, triggering the largest military operation ever used against a civilian suspect in America, involving 900 law enforcement
officials. After a 51-day stand-off, the FBI tanks ripped through the compound walls and tear gas canisters were launched into the building.
Police later blamed the Davidians for starting the horrific fire that claimed so many lives, but that is not how Doyle recalls it.
He says: “We had fuel inside the building as we’d brought it in from outside while the siege was on, but I did not see anyone pouring fuel.”
As the fire took hold, Doyle was crouching at the back of the chapel, trying to avoid the tear gas, when everything turned black.
He says: “It got so hot. I could see people further into the building starting to scream. It was then I tried to find my way out.
“My jacket was melting all over me and smoking. The skin was rolling off my hands. It was not blistering, it was just rolling off. I turned around and it was a big mass of flames. I climbed through the hole to get out.” He thought Shari must have fled already, but her body was later found on top of the vault.
He says: “They found nine bodies on top of the vault, several had been shot. Some people said they killed themselves. Well maybe they did.
“If you’re trapped in a room, and the whole place is on fire, there may have been some mercy killings.”
After escaping the fire, Doyle was arrested and spent three weeks in hospital in Dallas recovering from burns – with his feet shackled.
He was charged along with 10 others of murder and murder-conspiracy in the deaths of the four federal agents, but was acquitted with three others.
He still lives in Waco, and another survivor, David Thibodeau, 51, is a neighbour. It is clear both feel the same about who was responsible for the Waco tragedy
Thibodeau says: “All it would have taken was for a sheriff who knew David to say, ‘David, we need you to come on down to town’ [sic].
“That would have been the sane, rational way to do it. Instead, the ATF wanted to use their toys.
“When I look at the arrogance of those people, it is incredible. They threw the rule book and the constitution out of the window. [sic]”
As he looks back, Doyle admits to suffering from survivor guilt.
“I felt guilty when I came out, that I was one of the few that survived. Then, I was one of three that walked away from the trial exonerated and all the rest went to prison, so you feel guilty about that.”
But he has his faith, saying: “We, as survivors of 1993, are looking for David and all those that died.
“We believe that God will resurrect this special group.”
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