Balenda Ganem both laughed and cried while sitting on her hotel bed surrounded by a small brown teddy bear and photos of her son.
She had reason.
Her son, David Thibodeau, survived a trial by fire Monday. He was one of nine people to escape a ferocious blaze that razed the Branch Davidian compound within minutes shortly after noon.
But for about 85 others, including 17 children, the chance of survival is apparently gone.
“It is a very mixed joy,” she said of her son, who is reported to be uninjured. “It’s a very confused blessing.
“It’s like being a survivor of a plane crash right now,” she said. “My son has walked out of a situation that has taken everyone that means something to him.”
For all her happiness that her son is alive, there is sorrow – a feeling that the families of cult members were not given enough of a chance to intercede and possibly end the standoff without additional loss of life.
Ganem said she watched television in horror as the compound burst into flames.
“I sat there in an absolute stupor and watched that compound burn down,” she said. “Family members are going through their own personal hell right now.”
Ganem said she is angry at Howell, also known as David Koresh, and the FBI.
“I seethe with anger,” she said, adding that she feels a great sense of loss.
Would he go that far?
For others, the end of the 51-day siege between federal agents and cultists came swiftly and bitterly.
The loss for Bruce Gent and his wife, Lisa, is complete. Bruce’s daughter, Nicole, and the son she had by Howell, Dayland, did not come out of the flames. His son, Peter Gent, was killed in the initial raid Feb. 28 and later reportedly buried outside the compound.
The news made Lisa, stepmother to the children, sick.
“I never thought they would set the place on fire,” she said. “I didn’t know Vernon would have gone as far as that. I guess I’m just stupid. He’s a real gutless wonder.
“Bruce is terrible. He’s gone to work. He’s gone flat out of the house. He’s not able to speak to any media,” she said.
Lisa, who with Bruce was once a member of the cult, said she had been collecting clothing for Dayland in case Nicole came out and had to serve prison time.
It had to be done
“There’s nothing you can say,” she said. “I understand the FBI had to do something. “They couldn’t have done things differently. They couldn’t have sat at the front door for two years.
“I don’t blame anybody,” she said. “I only blame Vernon.”
If things could be done over again, she wishes that authorities had taken Howell into custody outside the compound.
“But it didn’t happen that way, so what can you say?”
Lisa Gent said she was happy for some, sad for others.
“Oh, I’m so grateful for her,” Lisa said of Ganem. “She’s been sitting there waiting.”
She is sad for Clive Doyle, who also escaped from the compound.
He has lost grandchildren and at least one daughter, Shari Doyle, inside, she said.
“I knew him very good,” she said of Clive Doyle.
“His kid…burned up and all his grandchildren,” she said. “He would have been better off dead, too….”
One daughter, Karen Doyle, was out of the compound. She said in an interview from the Branch Davidian house in LaVerne, Calif., that the FBI “will pay for it.”
But for Doyle, one of three Branch Davidians living in the California house, news of the fire sparked expressions of religious fervor.
“My sister is in there, my father, too,” said Doyle, 21. “I’m not afraid for them. I know God is taking care of them. The body is nothing; even if they die in the flames, the spirit will live on.”
Agony of uncertainty
Shari’s mother, Debborah Brown of Waco, got the news while watching television.
She still doesn’t know what happened to her 18-year-old daughter. She last saw Shari 17 months ago and believes she was still in the compound when flames ravaged it.
“The hardest part is not knowing,” she said. “I’ve not heard a word about Shari, whether she was in there, is she hurt…”
Her voice trailed off over the phone.
Brown has also heard Shari had borne Howell’s children. And it hurts her to know she may never have a chance now to see those children – her grandchildren.
“I’m glad it’s over, but I guess it’s all over but the crying,” Brown said. “I haven’t done that yet, but I sure feel like it. They say most of them perished. I don’t know how long it’s going to take them to identify the bodies.
“I’m not surprised at all because he’s a crazy man and I knew he was going to take as many with him as he could,” she said. “Vernon probably thought the (tear) gas was going to be explosive and it would just go ‘kaboom.’ ”
The mother of cult leader Howell, Bonnie Haldeman, decried the FBI for bringing the standoff to the brink by bashing holes in the group’s fortress-like home with a tank Monday morning.
“There were law-abiding, God-fearing people in there,” Mrs. Haldeman said from her home in Chandler. “They didn’t hurt anybody. It’s ridiculous.”
Mary Bell Jones, a long-time Howell follower who has been outside the compound during the standoff, said the FBI accomplished its mission.
“Well, they sure didn’t let him finish his manuscript,” she said of Howell. “They got what they wanted.”
“Whoever was there, I believe they didn’t suffer,” she said. “My faith is strong, you see, from the time I was a little girl.”
Jones, whose husband Perry reportedly died in the Feb. 28 raid, had numerous grandchildren inside the compound and three children, including Howell’s legitimate wife, Rachel.
She doesn’t expect authorities to call her and tell her about her dead loved ones. Authorities did not tell her if Perry died during the raid, she said.
Jones said it is not the end of the world yet, but that Howell might have opened the Seven Seals before he died.
“Maybe that’s what happened today,” she said. “It could be maybe God set the fire. Have you ever thought about that?”