Death paraded in front of us Thursday on Double EE Ranch Road.
Two men in camouflage suits toted a black bag, bowed in the middle, down the hill that falls away from what was once Mount Carmel. They stopped near a pitched green Army tent. The bag was laid next to five others. Each full. Then the men quickly walked away. There was much to do.
Thursday was the first day reporters were allowed a close-up view of the site of the 51-day standoff between Vernon Howell and authorities.
Reporters were told they could bring microphones and binoculars but no cameras. The scene was still too gruesome, said Chuck McDonald, of the governor’s office.
“We’re going to have a problem if we see a camera,” a Texas Ranger warned, tilting up his Stetson.
The winding road leading to Mount Carmel, about 10 miles east of Waco, had deteriorated under the weight of the tanks that had roared over it. Dust poured out from under the Department of Public Safety van carrying reporters.
Looking about, I felt lost. Without the mammoth, three-story Mount Carmel compound looming on the horizon, nothing looked familiar.
The hellish fire Monday that presumably killed Howell and 85 other Branch Davidians, including 17 children, had wiped the compound from the horizon, leaving a void that my memory had trouble filling.
We were dropped off 200 yards or so from what had been Mount Carmel, near its entrance.
I had not been there since Feb. 28, when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms tried to arrest cult leader Howell for possession of automatic weapons.
Four ATF agents and reportedly six Branch Davidians died in the exploding gunfire, some of the bullets skipping across the two placid ponds about 100 yards ahead.
This day it was as quiet as a silent prayer.
The Texas wind whipped the bright orange flags marking the bodies and carried the stench of death elsewhere.
A 12-foot high cinder-block vault, its door burned off, and a rusted water tower were almost all the fire spared. Two officers stood atop the vault, a charred body between them.
Nine orange flags were planted on the vault.
What appeared to be the barrel of a machine-gun stuck out of the ashes. A tripod was also on top of the vault, McDonald said.
Near the vault’s door, a stream of smoke hovered over the rubble.
A huge pile of gold gallon cans, part of the cult’s store of food, gleamed in the soft afternoon light, surrounded by a mess of melted –down MREs or meals ready to eat.
About 150 feet from the compound’s ruins was a black Camaro parked under a mesquite tree.
The ’68 Camaro, it’s back lifted up like a scorpion, was apparently Howell’s prized possession. It had a 427-cubic-inch engine. He became irate Sunday when the FBI moved it, according to Special Agent Bob Ricks.
For a man so possessed by the possibilities of the next life, Howell had a fondness of things of this earth. The evidence littered Mount Carmel.
Besides the Camaro, there was a red and purple Jet Ski resting near the lake; the white hull of a small boat grounded on the hill; and somewhere among the destruction, the collection of go-carts once parked underneath his bedroom window.
Much of what we saw Thursday we couldn’t make out, not even with the help of binoculars – all sorts of things that looked like they had been “wadded up and thrown away,” as Los Angeles? Time’s Carlton Stowers put it.
I was there as part of a small pool of reporters. Our job was to get facts and bring them back to the reporters who couldn’t come.
So I dutifully wrote down what I could see.
But I thought a lot, too.
I remembered meeting Howell for the first time five years ago. He was a polite young man trying to meld rock ’n’ roll and religion. When Perry Jones, his father-in-law, publicly called him a prophet, Howell had rebuked him. He just taught what he knew of the Bible, he said meekly.
Years later Howell proclaimed himself Christ.
His legal wife, Rachel Jones, was only 18 then.
She was quiet. But a contagious giggle and bright eyes made you know that she kept the better part of herself hidden.
Years later, she was just one of Howell’s many “wives,” and not even his favorite, according to former cult members.
But it is the children of Mount Carmel I remember most.
They had clung to their mother’s skirt tails during the 1988 shoot-out trial at the McLennan County Courthouse, in which Howell and seven followers escaped charges that they tried to kill rival prophet George Roden.
“The children in the group are so beautiful, they really are,” former cult member Jeannine Bunds once said. “You think, ‘These must be God’s children. They’re so beautiful.’”
Her daughter, Robyn, also a former cult member, recalled that one boy tried to escape spankings by looking at her with big eyes and saying, “Robyn, you know what? I love you.”
Whippings became more severe later, though, according to former cult members, and Howell began having sex with girls as young as 12.
And years later, 17 of those children are buried under a foot of debris.
And memories are all that is left of Mount Carmel.