The Branch Davidian Compound, 20 Years Later
On one side of a dust-scarred patch of country road, a modest ranch home sits barricaded behind a barbed-wire gate on which hang "Keep Out" and "Beware of Dog" signs.
On the other side, the neighbors have perched two wrought-iron gates wide open, poised to embrace anyone who proceeds through their arms and up the long dirt driveway beyond.
Twenty years ago, such an inviting entrance at the border of this property would have been unthinkable.
Standing outside the gate on a late July morning, I find it hard not to scan the horizon in search of the television images, of black smoke billowing from a three-story structure, of an inferno transforming it to ashes. Over the course of a 51-day standoff in the spring of 1993, this 77.8-acre lot of empty Texas prairie became known in every American household as the Branch Davidian Compound.
The embers, of course, have long since cooled. From the road, there's little to see except a memory.
The land is still used by surviving Branch Davidians. Some live on a rebuilt portion of the premises. Others come from nearby Waco for worship services. And a portion of the property remains open to the public, standing as a marker to the deadliest clash between the U.S. government and its own citizens since Wounded Knee.
* * *
It would be easy to mistake this place, officially known as the Mount Carmel Center, for a protected natural habitat or open-space preserve.
The first thing I notice after parking, aside from stillness, is an army of grasshoppers brushing against tall, dry grass. Birds of at least a dozen different species circle overhead and break the silence with an occasional chirp or squawk. A swan lounges in a pond. Against intuition and violent backdrop, it feels like a strangely peaceful place.
Inside the entrance, a memorial to the 82 Branch Davidians who died during the standoff sits under a large oak tree. I walk over to read the names of the dead, inscribed on bricks.
Among them: Douglas W. Martin, age 42. Diane Martin, age 41. Anita M. Martin, age 18. Sheila R. Martin, age 15. Lisa M. Martin, age 13. Peter Gent, age 24. Dayland L. Gent, age 3. Paiges Gent, age 1. Aborted Fetus Gent. The names go on.
They serve as a reminder that entire families -- entire generations -- perished in the fight. They also serve as an education. It is tempting to dismiss the Branch Davidians as the Wackos from Waco, an insular bunch of rural fanatics on the southwest fringe of the Bible Belt.
In truth, those who died here hailed from around the world. Among the dead, according to their memorial stones, were 52 Americans, 23 English citizens, four Australians, two Canadians, one Israeli and one New Zealander.
Trees line the driveway between the memorial and a church built on the rubble of the compound. Followers planted 82 -- one in memory of each victim. But one of the trees is missing.
Since the fire, the Branch Davidians have splintered. Factions disavow the teachings of leader David Koresh, believing he falsely represented himself as the "Lamb of God" prophesized in Revelation. Other groups remain loyal to him, believing the Bible predicted his persecution.
Lawsuits lingered for years, determining which side would control the property, and in the spring of 2006, members of the group that reject Koresh's legacy chopped down the tree dedicated in his memory and smashed his memorial plaque. Today, new buds are sprouting in the soil.
* * *
An unrelated work conference brought me to Waco, a city once synonymous with the standoff. In my mind, I guess, it still is. Curiosity got the best of me, and before long, I pointed the rental car east and followed the scribbled directions.
Crossing the Brazos River and heading northeast on E. Waco Drive out of downtown, a series of fried-chicken joints, seafood shacks and churches meet the road leading toward the compound.
The First Baptist Church of Waco advertises its annual summer camp. Near Chapman's Bail Bonds, the Living Word Church of God and Christ sits in a strip mail. Nearby, motorists will spot the Alee Shrine Temple, just a few doors down from the Rising Star Baptist Church, where the marquee advises, "Everybody Plays the Fool Sometimes."
Approaching Texas Loop 340, the Bread of Life Interdenominational Church is close to Tom's Smoke House, and the Pleasant Grove Baptist Church is next door to Jim's Krispy Fried Chicken. Grace Gospel Campground is just down the road from the Bellemead Calvary Baptist Church, and a billboard notes that Cowboy Church will be "meetin' Sunday at 10 a.m." The Parkview Baptist Church, Bethlehem Baptist Church and Tinker Crest Church of Christ populate the countryside on the drive to the Mount Carmel Center.
For decades, the Branch Davidians, an offshoot of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, fit peaceably in this fundamentalist petri dish.
On the morning of February 28, 1993, that changed forever.
Four agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were shot and killed and 16 wounded while attempting to serve a weapons-related warrant on Koresh. Six Branch Davidians died in the initial volley of gunfire. Their initial resistance was successful. The Davidians repelled the lawmen, and the FBI was called to the scene. The standoff commenced.
The names of the four deceased officers -- Conway Lebleu, Todd McKeehan, Robert Williams and Steven Willis -- are inscribed on a stone tablet the Branch Davidians placed down the driveway from the memorial for their own dead.
Another memorial stands for the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing, which occurred April 19, 1995, two years to the day following the fiery final moments in Waco, an event widely considered the impetus for Timothy McVeigh's plot.
While there are no apologies, the two additional memorials appear to acknowledge victims caught in the unintended consequences of their beliefs.
Some people remember the fatal conflict in Waco as a symbol of a religious cult gone mad. Others consider it an example of governmental overreach. The Branch Davidians offer a third version for history's consideration.
"The truth of the matter is that they were both at fault," reads a pamphlet left for visitors. "Very simply, both sides played God. Not only did David Koresh claim to sit in the seat of God, but in the way the government acted, they too acted as if they were God."
* * *
Curiosity-seekers still arrive at the Mount Carmel Center, only a 10-minute drive from the interstate, but these days, it's more of a trickle than a steady stream. A donation box holds $4.08.
Not a single tourist or resident appeared throughout my 2-plus-hour visit. Only a dog that poked its head from underneath the porch of the church building interrupted the solitude.
The church itself is unremarkable in every way. A simple wood frame, it is the only structure built upon the rubble. Services are still held here on Sunday mornings, but the double doors were locked today.
Walking around back, I came across the Branch Davidian swimming pool, the only portion of the original structure to survive the fire. It is absurdly large, bigger than Olympic-sized, and looks like a subterranean loading dock. Three tractor trailers could fit side by side across its width with their cargo submerged in the deep end.
Nearby, a buried school bus sits entombed in underground bunker. The Branch Davidians allegedly stored food and ammunition here during the standoff. Crumpled metal sheets of its faded orange roof rise above the soil in some places, but there's little that distinguishes it as a bus to the unsuspecting eye.
In the distance, the spindly remains of dozen dead trees rise above a thicket of thriving underbrush. Maybe it's the fervor of the morning or too much time in the broiling sun, but it seems as though a strange pattern of foliage has emerged. Too high to have been sculpted with clippers, it stands as a pure act of nature.
It is, undeniably, the shape of a cross.
Pete Bigelow is an associate editor at AOL Autos. He can be reached via email at email@example.com and followed @PeterCBigelow.
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