Unidentified Branch Davidians were heard asking “start the fire?” and “should we light the fire?” in recordings played today in the $675 million wrongful-death trial against the government.
U.S. District Judge Walter Smith, a panel of five jurors and attorneys listened to nearly an hour of mostly unintelligible conversations leading to April 19, 1993, when the compound burned to the ground.
Some 80 sect members, including leader David Koresh, died from either gunshots or fire that day.
The excerpts were presented in audio and transcript form as the wrongful death trial filed by surviving Branch Davidians and family members entered its fourth week. They contend the government used excessive force against the sect and contributed to the blaze.
“Let’s keep that fire going,” a male voice said on the final day of the siege as tanks rumbled in the background.
Suicidal Davidians or Mishap? Federal agents were heard warning sect members of an impending tear-gassing operation and urged them to surrender the morning of April 19. On the same excerpt, a male voice was heard asking, “Should we light the package?”
A day earlier, an unidentified male said, “you always wanted to be a charcoal briquette … There’s nothing like a good fire to bring us to the earth.”
The standoff began Feb. 28, 1993, when agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms unsuccessfully tried to search the complex and arrest Koresh on illegal weapons charges. A gun fight ensued; four agents and six Davidians were killed.
The audio clips, government attorneys say, help prove that suicidal Davidians, not federal agents, caused the three fires that consumed the rickety wood complex.
Plaintiffs say tanks used in an FBI tear-gassing operation on the final day turned the compound into kindling by punching holes in the walls, allowing wind gusts to feed the flames.
They also say the tanks could have knocked over lanterns used to illuminate the compound after the government cut off electricity. Potentially incendiary tear gas canisters launched into the building also may be a culprit, they contend.
The recordings were made with tiny eavesdropping devices hidden among supplies that were sent to the compound by the government.
Fiery Rumblings Earlier today, an FBI agent recalled peering through his binoculars and seeing a sect member bending over in a second-floor window seconds before smoke and flames erupted around noon on the final day of the siege.
“Shortly thereafter, I noticed smoke and fire coming out of that fire,” Ronald Elder testified. “He got up and moved out of my view, and that’s when I saw the fire and the smoke coming out of the window.”
Plaintiffs’ attorney Michael Caddell questioned Elder’s ability to see that far even with binoculars, saying Elder was a little less than half a mile away from the complex.
Caddell also wondered why Elder never reported what he had seen until two months later during an FBI interview.
“When I observed something, I would speak out to other team members. The team leader would report it if it needed to be reported,” Elder said. “Our main concern was if these individuals inside the building were going to come out compliantly or in a hostile manner.”