THE 51-DAY defiance of David Koresh and his fanatical Branch Davidian followers ended yesterday in a noontime apocalypse.
More than 85 people, including all the children, appeared to have died and only nine were believed to have survived as a giant ball of flames and black smoke engulfed the cult's headquarters near Waco, Texas - a gruesome and tragic conclusion to one of the most bizarre episodes in the history of US law enforcement.
The horrifying climax to the siege of Mount Carmel came six hours after the FBI began its first frontal assault on the fortified compound since the stand-off started on 28 February.
Just before sunrise, an M-60 armoured engineering vehicle lumbered up to one ochre-pink wall amid a volley of gunfire from inside. Using a special boom it smashed a hole and squirted in tear-gas to force the cult members holed up inside to leave.
A dozen times the exercise was repeated throughout the morning - until suddenly, shortly after noon, without the slightest outward warning, a truly Biblical conflagration consumed Mount Carmel.
Within minutes, smoke and flames were billowing hundreds of feet into the air. Half-an-hour later the complex had been reduced to blazing rubble. Last night Bob Ricks, an FBI special agent, identified only nine people who survived the inferno.
Koresh, the self-proclaimed Messiah, is believed to be dead. Among the survivors were an Australian and a girl of 16, while a third, an unidentified black woman, is critically ill in hospital. It would be 'very surprising' if any other survivors were found, Mr Ricks said. Speaking of the 17 children less than 10 years old in Mount Carmel, he added: 'We have to assume they are all dead.'
Last-ditch resistance had been in the air from the start of the day's drama. Before the FBI launched its attack, agents made a final effort by telephone to persuade the Branch Davidians to leave peacefully. But, according to Mr Ricks, Koresh's lieutenant, Steve Schneider, angrily slammed down the phone.
At that point the assault was launched. At a press briefing 90 minutes before the blazing denouement, Mr Ricks said the FBI was using a non-inflammable form of tear-gas, and in non-lethal quantities.
He made clear the FBI was ready for a lengthy operation if necessary. 'We will continue to gas them and make their lives as uncomfortable as possible until they do come out.'
In the event, though, the authorities seem to have been unprepared. Despite belligerent hints from the self-proclaimed Lamb of God over the past few days that he was expecting an apocalypse, and much talk of his unveiling his version of the Bible's seven seals, no fire engines were on hand. In a detailed account from the officials in Waco, the final conflagration was started deliberately by three cult followers at opposite ends of the 77-acre compound. It was fuelled by a large cache of ammunition, explosives and perhaps petrol.
'We believe David Koresh gave the order for a mass suicide,' Mr Ricks said. The cult members responded by setting their compound ablaze using lantern fuel to spread the flames. One survivor told the FBI a cry rang through the building as it went up in flames: 'Fire is lit, the fire is lit.'
Koresh's mother, Bonnie Haldeman, reacted angrily to the FBI's actions. 'Where's our civil rights? It's just terrible. The way they handled this whole thing has been wrong,' she said.
The political consequences of the nightmarish end to the seven-week stand-off are not yet clear.
An anguished inquest is certain. At least one Republican senator called for a Congressional investigation yesterday. The entire handling of the affair by the FBI and the long-troubled Justice Department will come under scrutiny.
The future of the FBI Director, William Sessions, already under pressure to resign for alleged ethics violations, looked more doubtful than ever last night. But the Attorney General, Janet Reno, denied the affair had been mishandled. She said the FBI had acted 'professionally and with restraint. In cases like this there are no easy answers.'
Although the White House had been reported to favour caution, the FBI had not concealed its frustration.
First early last month, and then just before Easter, Koresh promised a quick and peaceful end to the siege, only to renege on his word. Finally FBI patience ran out. On Sunday President Bill Clinton was told of the assault plans and, his spokesman said yesterday, he raised no objection.
The stand-off began when officers of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, attempting to serve search warrants for illegal arms, were met by bullets. In the battle, four ATF agents were killed and 15 wounded. At least two of the Branch Davidians also died. All along, however, it was clear the outcome would depend on 33-year-old Koresh himself. Born Vernon Wayne Howell in 1959, he became leader of the Branch Davidians, a breakaway sect of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, in the late 1980s.
As devoted to rock music and women as to his religious beliefs, he exercised total control over followers. 'Koresh' is the Hebrew word for Cyrus, the Persian king who protected Israelites from the Babylonians.
'If the Bible is true, then I'm Christ,' Koresh said last month. Alive or dead, yesterday he achieved his version of martyrdom.
(Photograph and graphic omitted)
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