Cult members who escaped the Mount Carmel inferno deny official accounts of a mass suicide, claiming stairwells and hallways were blocked during the fire because of damage to the compound, an attorney and family member said Tuesday.
Balenda Ganem, mother of David Thibodeau, said her son says there is “no way” they planned a mass suicide.
Thibodeau is in McLennan County Jail being held as a material witness. He was one of five cult members who escaped their blazing compound Monday who had initial appearances in Federal court Tuesday.
Fort Worth attorney Jeff Kearney, who talked Tuesday to his client, Jaime Castillo, agreed, saying a mass suicide didn’t occur.
Castillo is in McLennan County Jail charged with conspiracy to murder a federal agent.
“There wasn’t any plan to burn the place down,” Kearney said.
“He certainly feels very sad about all the others being in there.”
Also making initial appearances Tuesday before U.S. Magistrate Dennis Green were Graeme Leonard Craddock, Renos Avrram and Derek Lloyd Lovelock. All three were ordered held as material witnesses, pending the outcome of detention hearings.
FBI: Shock and horror
FBI Special Agent Bob Ricks said that agents felt shock and horror when they saw flames engulf the compound within minutes around noon Monday and that agents thought cultists were killing themselves.
Only nine cult members survived. About 85 are believed to have died in the blaze that ended a 51-day standoff between the cult and federal authorities.
What ended in tragedy, began in tragedy.
Federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents attempted to serve cult leader Vernon Howell, also known as David Koresh, with arrest and search warrants for illegal weapons Feb. 28. Their efforts failed, leaving four agents and perhaps as many as six cultists dead.
Ganem said Thibodeau told her that military vehicles pushed in the front door Monday, making it impossible to exit.
“He said he couldn’t get out the front,” she said. “The front door was caved in.”
“He did say that people were trying to get out,” she said.
FBI agents warned Branch Davidians at 5:55 a.m. that the compound would be hit with tear gas and that cult members should surrender.
Ricks said cultists fired upon authorities as they inserted non-lethal tear gas into the compound by poking holes through the walls with military equipment.
The FBI has said one woman who was on fire ran out of the compound and then tried to go back inside. An FBI agent rescued her despite her attempts to fight him off, Ricks said.
Thibodeau said the second floor was engulfed in flames, and he couldn’t make it up to help the children and others, Ganem said. Access to hallways was blocked, he told her.
Kearney said the military vehicles damaged a hallway and the stairwell near the front door that led to the second floor, making it hard to get up or down.
Ganem said her son didn’t see where the flames started, but he suspects the fire was somehow sparked by the military vehicles punching holes through the walls.
Kearney said his client doesn’t know how the fire started.
FBI officials have said someone inside the compound set the fire.
Thibodeau told Ganem that he was in the first-floor chapel, also known as the music room, and that he escaped through a side door in back of the compound.
“He’s a mess,” Ganem said. “I’d say he’s in shock and extremely emaciated.”
“He’s very clear about the loss he suffered,” she said.
Ganem said he has blisters from the fire on his nose and behind his ears. His weight is down to about 145 pounds, she added.
2 escapees in chapel
Kearney said his client, who was also in the chapel, escaped through a window. Castillo wore a gas mask but was later driven out by the smoke, Kearney said.
“There were a few others down there, and some of them got out,” Kearney said.
His client did not fire any shots, he said.
However, the FBI said that cult members fired about 80 rounds in response to their assault with tear gas. Ricks said the FBI did not fire back.
Kearney said his client thought they would come out in the near future.
“I think it was clear to him and everybody else that as soon as Koresh finished the manuscript they were all coming out,” Kearney said. “I think this intrusion into their residence was an unwarranted, vulgar abuse of power.”