The Questions Live On

Somewhere amid the ashes of Ranch Apocalypse there may be clues to what really happened. Then again, some of the evidence, like some of the bodies, may be burned beyond recognition. Instead, there were only conflicting explanations for the fiasco that killed an estimated 86 people and shattered families from Manchester to Melbourne. Between the lurching spin control from embattled federal officials and the secondhand' accounts from survivors' lawyers, it was hard to know whom and what to believe. Among the most troubling questions:

Top Justice Department officials disagreed on this key point. Attorney General Janet Reno cited concerns over child abuse-"Babies were being beaten." But FBI officials said there were no new charges of child abuse inside the compound. In Waco, FBI Special Agent in Charge Jeff Jamar said that there was simply an accumulation of frustrations: the negotiations had gone nowhere, they were convinced that Koresh was stalling and they feared he was spoiling for a confrontation. The FBI's elite Hostage Rescue Team (HRT), which had maintained sniper positions since the siege began, was also fatigued. "Staring through a sight for hours can be terribly disorienting," said one official. "They'd been there for days."

Simply put, the plan was to "gas and negotiate, gas and negotiate," one FBI source told NEWSWEEK. Converted M-60 tanks, known as Combat Engineering Vehicles, were to punch holes in the walls and windows of the compound and pump nonlethal tear gas into selected rooms, using long, protruding booms. Cult members who wanted to escape would do so, the FBI reasoned, and the gas would force any holdouts to retreat to one part of the building. The Feds planned to keep gassing for as long as 48 hours, then pull back and negotiate further. Beyond that, the HRT was under orders not to leave its tanks or enter the compound on foot. What if Koresh and his followers refused to leave? "We didn't have a specific plan," one FBI official conceded. "We didn't think he would stay in there."

HRT agents did have authority to leave their tanks, but only in the rarest of circumstances, such as children being killed or held hostage. In the event of mass suicide, the FBI plan was to massively gas the compound again, hoping to disrupt the activity. But that became moot once the fire broke out and engulfed the building. There was no contingency plan for braving a wall of fire.

Justice Department officials told reporters that military counterterrorism experts had been brought in to review the assault plan. But the Pentagon said that two top commanders had merely attended a briefing and weren't asked for their evaluation. In the aftermath, commandos from Delta Force, the military's own rival rescue team, were scornful of the plan, since it violated a cardinal rule of counterterrorism: once an assault has begun, entry teams must quickly subdue the targets before they have time to regroup. "Speed is of the essence," said one former top Delta officer. "Once you've busted down the walls, you've tipped your hand."

Within the FBI, different stories are being spun. Three separate sources told NEWSWEEK that HRT members had protested the plan and argued for a bolder assault. But one senior FBI official in Texas denies that HRT had ever objected. Either way, FBI brass rejected any direct assault as too dangerous for the agents. Koresh had made veiled threats in letters that analysts interpreted to mean that the compound might be booby-trapped. Officials were also concerned about a situation where it might not be clear who was a hostage and who was a hostage-taker. "Sure, we could have gone in there with our Bradley tanks and flashbangs and ninja gear," says a senior FBI source. "But you'd have to kill an awful lot of innocent people to save the ones who wanted to be saved."

Other options were also weighed and dismissed. FBI Director William Sessions asked old friends in Waco for advice and one suggested using high-pressure water hoses to force the cultists into a contained area of the compound. But the lack of water at the scene made that unworkable. Sharpshooters could have killed Koresh at any time he appeared at a window or door, but that was never seriously considered. "It would be a terrible precedent for law enforcement on the scene to be judge, jury and executioner," said a senior FBI official. Authorities in Washington also pondered the idea of pulling back, ringing the perimeter with more barbed wire and having U.S. marshals stand guard until Koresh came out. But that was nixed on the ground that Koresh might take the offensive himself. And the Feds didn't want to appear to be walking away from a group that had already killed four ATF agents.

"Of course it was considered," said a senior FBI source. But not very seriously. Koresh expressed anger that his black Camaro was moved from the front door and seemed excited about auctioning his book rights-indications that he expected to have a future. FBI negotiators also asked him and his followers point-blank several times if they were planning to kill themselves. "No one said yes. Most said the exact opposite-'We wouldn't even consider it'," said Clinton van Zandt, the FBI's chief negotiator in Waco. That was also the prevailing view among the dozens of experts the FBI consulted during the standoff. But some did warn that Koresh had prophesied that he would die in a violent confrontation with the forces of evil. The FBI assault seemed to play right into that script, just as the ill-fated ATF raid had 51 days before.

Disagreement on this question remained as intense as the blaze itself. Surviving cult members and their lawyers categorically denied that the group had plans to burn the compound, and insisted that the oncoming tanks had toppled kerosene lamps that quickly ignited bales of hay stacked up by the windows. But the Feds stuck just as fiercely to their version. Justice Department spokesman Carl Stern says three separate sources reported fires starting in three different locations within 120 seconds. Trying to reconcile the accounts, the Feds said there may have been a small band of Davidians, loyal to Koresh, who started fires that the others didn't know about.

The story that three charred bodies had been found with fresh bullet wounds was the most mystifying example of spin control outpacing fact. Justice officials leaked the report, implying that cult members had been shot trying to flee. On Thursday forensic experts said no such evidence had been found. On Saturday a medical examiner said two victims had died of a gunshot wound each to the head, but it was not immediately clear when they had died.

Affidavits unsealed last week confirmed that an ATF undercover agent inside the compound that morning heard Koresh warn his followers that the Feds were coming. He shouted: "Neither the ATF or the National Guard will ever get me!" What still wasn't clear was why the ATF proceeded with its plan, knowing that the cult was armed and waiting for them. ATF spokesman Jack Killorin said it still wasn't certain that the element of surprise had been lost: "These questions will be answered at the [agency's] review."

The unsealed affidavits starkly set out the twin rationales for going in after the Davidians: the cult appeared to be arming for Armageddon and, according to former cult members, Koresh was abusing kids. Child abuse is not under federal jurisdiction, but ATF agents, alerted by a suspicious UPS driver, had evidence that Koresh was amassing a huge cache of weapons and explosives parts; they needed to search the ranch to see if laws had been violated.

Former cult members in Australia insisted that the whole debacle could have been avoided if authorities had listened to them earlier. They had charged for years that Koresh was fathering children with underage girls, subjecting followers to mind control and forcing parents to beat their kids. They hired a private investigator, Geoffrey Hossack, to alert U.S. authorities, but Hossack says he was rebuffed by federal and local agencies, State child-welfare workers did visit the compound about a year ago. But they were unable to substantiate the child-abuse charges and closed their investigation on April 30, 1992. Texas Child Protective Services workers who evaluated the 21 children released during the 51-day siege said they found no evidence that any had been abused.

Eight who left the compound before or during the fire have been charged with conspiracy to murder federal agents in the February shoot-out. Thirteen more are being held as material witnesses. Some may end up testifying against their fellow members in exchange for leniency. But the betting in Waco is that few of the cult members will be convicted, given the conflicting accounts of who shot first and why. Meanwhile, in their jail cells and hospital rooms, most of the survivors seemed eerily upbeat last week, convinced that their messiah's prophesies had come true-and awaiting his resurrection.