The 51-day standoff between Branch Davidians barricaded inside their Mount Carmel compound and federal agents resolved in flames today.

A fire raged through the Mount Carmel complex shortly after noon, leveling the massive frame building. Television crews recorded a handful of the estimated 95 Branch Davidians thought to be inside at the time escaping the inferno.

Eight cult members were in custody, including two who acknowledged using torches to start the fire.

One report said 20 to 35 people got out, but FBI spokesman Carlos Fernandez declined to comment.

“We can’t give you any statement right now,” he said.

At least one explosion

The fire started after federal agents added battering rams and tear gas to their pressure tactics to try and persuade residents to come out. They had besieged the building since a failed Feb. 28 raid left four agents dead.

Flames appeared shortly after noon in one of the smaller watch towers on the south end of the sprawling complex. Fanned by winds gusting to 28 miles per hour, the flames raged out of control, aided by at least one explosion from inside. Within 10 minutes of the first flames appearing, the four-story tower in the center of the compound collapsed — possibly the victim of a separate blaze.

By the time fire trucks passed the media checkpoint on FM 2491 about 12:40 p.m., the compound was nothing more than a blazing heap of tangled wreckage.

3 casualties

A spokesman for Parkland Hospital in Dallas said the hospital was expecting three casualties to be transported via helicopter — one male with a burned hand and two seriously injured females.

Justice Department spokeswoman Caroline Arnovitz said two cult members were seen starting the fire on opposite ends of the compound.

Attorney General Janet Reno approved the FBI’s gas assault and informed President Clinton. The FBI notified the compound’s neighbors before daybreak “that it would end today,” according to Melanie Felton, a nearby rancher.

Justice of the Peace James Collier was called to the scene about 2 p.m.

The fire followed about six hours of full-court press tactics by federal agents surrounding the building.

FBI agent Bob Ricks, in a briefing that ended just an hour before the flames appeared, said the tactics were “the next logical step” in persuading Mount Carmel residents to come out.

“Today’s action was not a sign that our patience has run out,” Ricks said. “This was, we believe, the next logical step in a series of actions to bring this to a conclusion.”

FBI agents have long discounted the possibility of a mass suicide among the Branch Davidians. Spokesman Bob Ricks said today that FBI tactics were designed to lessen that possibility.

“We thought this was probably the best way to prevent this sort of suicide pact — to cause confusion inside the compound, also the instincts, the motherly instincts would take place and they would want their kids out of that environment,” Ricks said.

Ricks said cult members were warned in a 5:55 a.m. telephone call that the FBI was going to bring in tear gas. Shortly thereafter, two combat engineering vehicles — essentially M-60 tanks with battering rams instead of guns — began plowing into walls. Ricks said those battering rams were injecting 15 seconds’ worth of CS tear gas into the building with each penetration.

“The occupants of the compound were advised, “This is not an assault, do not fire. If you fire, your fire will be returned. We are introducing non-lethal tear gas. Exit the compound now and follow instructions. You are responsible for your own actions. Come out now and you will not be harmed,” Ricks said.

Despite the warning, Ricks said, about 200 shots were fired at the vehicles as they went about their business. He said agents didn’t return fire.

The fire erupted during a live television broadcast of a tank battering a gaping hole in the compound’s first floor. Moments before, the mother of one cult member had voiced her fear in a telephone interview about what might happen.

“It’s impossible to know how he will respond,” said Balenda Ganem, mother of cult member David Thibodeau. “When you’re under great stress and great fear, you rarely respond responsibly. We hope he will.”

The move by the FBI was endorsed by at least one ex-cult member — Marc Breault, who at one time was a top lieutenant to cult leader Vernon Howell.

“I think it had to be done. Vernon wasn’t coming out,” Breault said. “He was writing his tract on the Seven Seals. That could have taken months. The Seventh Seal includes practically the whole book of Revelation. He could have been in there forever. The FBI had to do something.”

Breault said Howell, also known as David Koresh, probably chose fire because he didn’t have the firepower to fight armor.

“I don’t think Vernon had anything that could penetrate the tanks. I don’t think he had the firepower,” Breault said. “If agents had been sent in, Vernon might have chosen to go out in a gunfight. But you can’t fight a tank.

“We thought Vernon might threaten to kill the children. Unfortunately, it looks like he just went ahead and did it,” Breault said.

Calling from jail, cult member Brad Branch told CNN, “This is a systematic…assassination by the FBI to eliminate all of the crime scene, now they’re finishing off the job, destroying the crime scene.” Branch is one of about 38 people, most of them children, who left the compound during the stalemate.

After the compound burned, Bonnie Haldeman, mother of Howell, said through a family member: “The events of the last few hours have been most disturbing to everyone in our family. We are very concerned for the safety of our three grandchildren and of everyone in the compound. There are many questions which have not been answered. And we are praying that in the coming hours we will see people begin to walk out of the underground bunker sites.”

Dr. Marc Galanter, professor of psychiatry at New York University Medical Center, said the cult leader’s delusions, amplified by dutiful followers, made it logical the group would violently resist any attempt to disrupt it.

“It’s a bizarre martyrdom to his own avoidance of humiliation,” Galanter said in a telephone interview. “He sacrificed his desire to stay alive in order to maintain his own grandiosity.”

Jean Holub, Howell’s grandmother in Houston, said she did not believe the fire had been set by cultists because at least 17 children were inside the group.

“No, no way,” she said. “He wouldn’t do that to those children.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Read the Tribune-Herald's 7-part investigative series on the inner workings of the Branch Davidians. Hours after Part Two appeared in print, the ATF raided the group's compound.

Read the Tribune-Herald’s account of the ATF raid on the Branch Davidian compound on Feb. 28, 1993. Four ATF agents and six in the compound were killed in the gunfight.

Read the daily news accounts of the 51-day siege at the Branch Davidian compound near Elk, which began Feb. 28 and lasted until April.

Read the accounts of April 19 and beyond: FBI agents began inserting canisters of tear gas into the Branch Davidian compound in the early morning hours. By noon, it was on fire.