Waco: The Aftermath: Koresh denied cult children safe refuge: FBI says empty shelter shows leader intended followers to die, writes Phil Reeves in Waco

Investigators picking through the charred mess that used to be the fortified Texas compound of self-appointed messiah David Koresh made a sickening discovery, which strengthens evidence that the cult leader intended his followers to die.

Underneath the debris, they found that an underground shelter had escaped the huge fire that ripped through the complex several hours after the FBI began pumping in teargas in an attempt to end a 51-day siege.

The agency believes that if any cultists had taken refuge in the shelter, a bus buried underground, then the tragedy which ended in the death of 86 people, including at least 17 children, may have been averted. 'We went down to the bus hoping to find children,' said Jeffrey Jamar, an FBI Special Agent. 'The air was cool and there was no gas. If Koresh had wanted those children to survive, that was one place he could have put them safely.'

The FBI was yesterday adamant that Koresh alone was to blame for the tragedy at the Mount Carmel fortress, his headquarters outside Waco, Texas.' It was not because of our actions,' said Mr Jamar. 'Those children are dead because David Koresh had them killed . . . He had 51 days to release those children. He chose those children to die. We don't have anything to do with those deaths.'

Retributions over the botched operation was gathering pace, as FBI officials tried to fend off questions about why they decided to gas the compound in an attempt to end a siege which began on 28 February, when four federal agents were killed in a raid. During weeks of negotiations, the 33-year-old Koresh had become increasingly erratic and violent-tempered, repeatedly breaking promises to surrender. Also, conditions in the compound were deteriorating. 'If we had waited 90 more days, until children die, how would the Federal Government look when we finally got into the compound to find children dying of hunger and disease.'

According to the authorities, the cultists were calm and disciplined when the gas started to flow into their headquarters at 6am on Monday. They slipped on their masks and headed for to a central area where the fumes did not penetrate. 'People were in such control, and very few resisted instructions until the very end when some were forced to stay,' said Mr Jamar. He dismissed as rumour reports that the Branch Davidians took lethal injections beforehand.

As one survivor was led into court yesterday, he shouted that the fire began when a FBI vehicle knocked over a lantern as it began punching holes in the compound wall, under fire from heavily armed cult members. But the agency claims it has aerial photographs of multiple fires and eye- witness reports of cultists apparently lighting flames.

Two Britons who survived the fire have told a British diplomat that there was no talk of suicide beforehand, saying they also had no idea how the blaze started. Renos Avraam, 29, and Derek Lovelock, 37, a chef from Manchester, were in their bedrooms, trying to escape the tear-gas, when the flames erupted. Mr Avraam leapt through a window, while Mr Lovelock escaped via a hole battered in a wall by a FBI tank, squirting tear gas. They were in McLennan County jail last night, awaiting possible charges.

Attention yesterday also begun to focus on why the fire was allowed to burn without an attempt to put it out. It began at 12.10am, and within 30 minutes the fortress in which Koresh had built his mad empire had been reduced to ashes. According to local officials, the fire brigade arrived at 12.22pm, but weren't allowed past an FBI checkpoint because of safety fears. When they were allowed to approach, at 12.45pm, it was too late.

The death of the children inside the compound has touched a nerve in Waco, a Bible-belt town which was yesterday holding church services to mourn the loss of life. When the stand-off started, some Texans were highly critical of the federal authorities for raiding the cult. But the mood has changed, as evidence mounts that Koresh was willing to allow defenceless children to die with him. Exactly how many were killed is still in dispute but it could be as high as 24 - Koresh appears to have classified any child over 10 as an adult, and included some among his harem of 'wives'.

Janet Reno, US attorney general, and William Sessions, FBI director, have attempted to justify the raid on the ranch by saying that they had information that children were being abused. However, the evidence of this is contradictory. When 21 children were released in the early part of the siege, they proved to be well looked after, and showed no sign of abuse. They had, however, acquired some odd attitudes, reflecting the bizarre and warped world in which they had been bought up.

Not everyone, however, allowed the tragedy to disrupt their lives. On the main road, several miles from the steaming patch of ground that used to be the Branch Davidian compound, Hector Antuna was enjoying a mini- boom in business. 'Fire Sale] Fire Sale]' he bellowed, flourishing a T- shirt showing a picture of Koresh under the legend 'I Ain't Coming Out'.

The fire was still smouldering, yet it had been a good day at his makeshift stall, as the bundle of dollar bills in Mr Antuna's pocket testified. After the FBI had begun pumping tear-gas into the compound, he launched a new product, mugs with the inscription: We're Coming In. 'If only I had remembered to put on the date,' he fretted. 'Tomorrow I'll put on the date, and add a tank and a battering ram and some gas masks. It'll be awesome. It'll be a collector's item that will fetch dollars 200 in ten years' time.'

As Mr Antuna boasted about his business plans (he believes Koresh will be 'bigger than Elvis'), FBI Special Agent Bob Ricks was eating dinner in a restaurant several miles down the road. For weeks, the siege of Waco filled his every waking hour. 'That man was malicious, a manipulator and a liar,' he said quietly. 'What else can you say about him?' He looked totally drained, exhausted by the ordeal and shattered by its outcome.

Was there, he was asked, any moment in all the hours of negotiations that you felt any warmth towards the man who thought he was Jesus, any moment in which he felt he might even have liked him? Mr Ricks, normally quick to answer to most questions, looked up from his plate looking confused. 'I don't know what you mean.' One of his colleagues, another FBI man, interrupted angrily. 'That man was a cop-killer,' he said. 'What more do you need to know?'

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