By Kevin Cokely
Painful memories remain vivid for those who lived through the 51-day Branch Davidian standoff near Waco.
“I just, first of all, think of the children that were lost,” said Sheila Martin, a Branch Davidian who lost her husband and four oldest children in the fire that engulfed the building on April 19, 1993 – when federal agents used force to end the long standoff.
“Every time you remember them, holding each other and fire coming, it’s just, just too much,” said Martin.
In all, 88 people died over the course of the standoff, which started when federal agents arrived looking for weapons.
Four federal agents were among 10 who died the first day and 78 Branch Davidians died on the last, including 27 children.
“Twenty-four years later you can still feel the pain. If you sit long enough, you don’t see anything but the ugliness of it,” said Martin.
Three of Martin’s children were able to leave the building three weeks after the siege began; she left the compound a short time later before the siege came to its fiery end.
“Now, thankfully, we’re able to go to that greater peace and not only feel the hate and all the hurt that we had before,” said Martin.
“The biggest regret, obviously, is the loss of life — on both sides,” said Byron Sage, the FBI’s chief negotiator on scene who spoke with David Koresh and his followers while looking for a peaceful end to the 51-day standoff.
“The greatest lesson learned, from our standpoint, from law enforcement’s standpoint, is the absolute need for coordination and cooperation within your agency, particularly between the negotiators and the tactical teams,” said Sage.
“If you have that, you have the greatest potential of success,” said Sage. “If you don’t have it, you’re creating a crisis within the crisis.”
“It was an answer to a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Sage. “His ministry was focused on preparing for and engaging the government, basically to initiate the battle of Armageddon, and we played right into it.”
“The bottom line is, I don’t think the FBI or anyone else was ever in control of how the situation was gonna end except for David Koresh,” said Sage.
Clive Doyle, another Branch Davidian survivor who escaped the fire on that last day, lost his 18-year-old daughter to the flames.
“I believe God allowed this to happen to us for the benefit of everybody else, that our government is so quick to use heavy-handed methods,” said Doyle. “I consider that God permitted this to happen to us [so] that other churches, other groups could learn a lesson from it.”
“The Branch Davidians tended to speak to people who had been socially left behind, both economically and culturally,” said Gordon Melton, at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies in Religion.
“They thought that violence would come to them,” said Melton. “And thus, when this happened, it had a tendency to verify their prophesies for them.”
“They’re absolutely a religion,” said Catherine Wessinger, with the Department of Religious Studies at Loyola University. “I mean, they had their own unique interpretation but they were deriving all off their beliefs from the Bible. You know, the same source that other Christians do?”
“We were seeing it through what the Bible said was going to happen to God’s people one time, and one day, one year in the future,” said Martin. “So we said, ‘Maybe this is it.'”
“For those of us who study religion, I don’t know if there is a big lesson to come out of this,” said Melton. “It’s a singular case and, because of that, the big lessons are hard to come by.”
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