In lawsuit, Branch Davidians weave fire theories beyond tear gas
Wednesday, September 29th 1999, 12:00 am
By: News On 6
WASHINGTON (AP) -- For all the recent furor over the FBI's use of
potentially incendiary tear gas canisters on the final day of the
Waco siege, a lawyer suing the government on behalf of Branch
Davidian survivors and relatives contends the inferno may have been
triggered by other causes.
Cult leader David Koresh and some 80 followers perished during
the fiery climax to the siege on April 19, 1993.
Michael Caddell, the lead lawyer in a wrongful-death lawsuit
against the government, is wary of tying his legal case to the
military canisters lobbed by federal agents. Alternate theories
under examination include the possibility that the fire was caused
by contact between exhaust from military tanks used in the assault
and the flimsy wooden walls of the Davidians' compound, he said,
adding that the exhaust could have reached 1,200 degrees
"There are a number of possible explanations and I don't want
to get sucked in too much into the whole pyrotechnic issue,"
Caddell said in a recent interview. "It may turn out to be a red
Federal officials have always said the fire was set by the
Davidians, not agents -- a position maintained after the FBI
acknowledged last month that its agents fired a few pyrotechnic
tear-gas projectiles on the siege's final day. There's no evidence
those canisters, lobbed several hours before the fire, ignited the
flames, they say.
That view is shared by an arson expert on the team that
investigated the tragedy as part of the Justice Department's 1993
"I still say what we came to the conclusion on at the end of
our investigation down there still holds today, regardless of what
they are saying about these pyrotechnic devices," said Thomas
Hitchings, chief deputy fire marshal in Allegheny County, Pa.
Caddell and others who accuse the government of a cover-up are
examining theories that:
--Military tanks that punched holes into the building to insert
non-burning tear gas knocked over lanterns the Davidians relied on
after the FBI cut off electricity.
--Flash-bang devices used by federal agents ignited the building.
Filmmaker Michael McNulty, who has espoused that theory, claims
such devices were found near the fire's origins. The government
disputes his assertions.
--Heat from the tanks' exhaust could have ignited the dwelling's
wooden walls, which were reinforced with makeshift barricades of
Caddell said a special forces operative told him of once trying
to warm his gloved hands beneath the exhaust from such tanks, only
to see his leather gloves ignite.
But a spokesman for General Dynamics Land Division, which
manufactured the M728 Combat Engineer Vehicles used at Waco, said
the tanks' diesel engines produce heat that "does not get hot
enough to start a fire."
Attorney General Janet Reno insists the fire was set by the
Davidians. But stung by the FBI's recent disclosure, she named
former Republican Sen. John Danforth of Missouri to investigate
whether there was a cover-up or other wrongdoing.
FBI officials declined to address the scenarios suggested by
Caddell and other skeptics, saying the fire's genesis has been
extensively reviewed. And Danforth's inquiry "would preclude us
from making any comment," FBI spokesman Bill Carter said.
The independent arson investigators who combed the Waco ruins
concluded the fire resulted from "an intentional act" by people
inside the compound and that accelerants were used to speed the
Fires were set in three locations, the team concluded. The fire
began on the second floor's southeast corner, moments after a tank
disengaged from that section's ground floor. Flames then were
detected on the first floor's midsection and east side.
But former Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms arson
investigator Richard L. Sherrow, hired by the plaintiffs, concluded
the fire started in only one location, most likely when the tank
rammed the southeast corner.
David Thibodeau, one of nine Davidians who survived the final
assault, said he does not believe agents intentionally set the
fire. But he blames the government for the conditions leading up to
"Although neither we nor the feds deliberately set Mount Carmel
ablaze, the FBI must have been aware that the toxic brew they
injected into our building in such enormous quantities would create
a highly flammable condition that windy day," he writes in his new
For Caddell, the debate over who triggered the inferno
ultimately may prove academic in a lawsuit that accuses the
government of using excessive force throughout the operation.
"We do not have to prove how the fire started to win our
lawsuit," he said. "But I think we will prove that the
government's actions on April 19 contributed to the spread of the
fire ... and the deaths of Davidians as a result of the fire."