Apocalypse came Monday in the time it took one Waco businessman to walk from his car to his store.
He was not alone in his surprise. After weeks of watching and waiting, most of Waco was shocked when the standoff at Mount Carmel uncoiled so suddenly.
Erik Shultz, a Baylor University senior, knew something had happened at Vernon Howell’s besieged compound when he came out of a school cafeteria and saw more than 50 students crowded around the television in the lobby.
“There was a swarm of people – someone said the compound was on fire, and my first question to someone was how many made it out,” Shultz said. “He said he didn’t know if anyone had.”
The pace of the siege, which had stalled in recent weeks, accelerated Monday morning when FBI agents began pumping tear gas into the building. By early afternoon, the compound was engulfed in an inferno that authorities said was set by cult members.
At McDuff Electronics in Richland Mall, more than 80 television screens were tuned to the same newscast of the fire that destroyed the compound, drawing passers-by from all over the mall.
“I would say that everybody that passed by came in,” said Rick Gossett, the store’s manager. “I’d estimate at one point about 70 people.”
Gossett called the mood in his store “somber.”
“I’m sure everybody is glad that it’s over, but they’re all sad it ended this way,” he said. “The kids were a major concern. Everybody was asking about the kids.”
As many as 24 children may have been inside Mount Carmel. None were among the survivors Monday night.
A shift manager at the Mr. Gatti’s Pizza on North Valley Mills Drive said a large number of people came to her restaurant for their lunch breaks and watched the fire on the restaurant’s two large-screen televisions.
“It’s hard to explain,” said Cindy Womack, who was making pizzas when news of the fire broke. “There were moments today when it was quiet, and then the pitch rose again, but it just wasn’t the same today.”
While much of Waco was following the end of Mount Carmel, though, Waco High School administrators were making certain the fire did not become a spectacle on their campus.
“Everything ran smoothly,” said Bobby Jacobs, the school’s assistant principal. “We made no special provisions and no announcements. There was no disruption on my campus.”
At Baylor’s student union building, Shultz said news of the early morning FBI action had jarred students.
“It’s kind of sad that we’re only 10 miles away from the compound and no one was really even thinking about it,” he said. “I would bet money that some of them don’t even know right now what happened.”
Hoping to keep Waco residents from forgetting, Wilkerson-Hatch Funeral Home Monday canceled an advertisement set to run today in the Tribune-Herald, replacing it with a message in memory of the children who are presumed dead from the fire.