We pressed our fingers against the television screen. We heard the commentators observe it calmly without a trace of panic. Fire.

We squirmed and strained, looking to see if the stoic, poker-faced compound would belch out people with their arms in the air. Instead, just smoke, and then flame, and then more flame, and more.

There on the roof — the same roof on which we’d seen a federal agent scramble for his life? — was a human form. Motionless at first, it crawled, then plummeted to the ground without a ladder.

We waited for the fire trucks — our fire trucks.

Yes, those were our fire trucks. Waco’s and Bellmead’s, and parts between. “Where are the trucks?” We said it to ourselves and to no one.

This is a push-button age. Now! Now! Now! Unfortunately, fire trucks don’t travel as rapidly as information does. We video captives had stared at the Branch Davidian compound for two months hoping it would go away. Then in a flash it went.

Nothing was solved. Ashes to ashes to ashes. Vernon Howell’s so-called best-seller about the Seven Seals. Ashes. All the fancy guns with their hellfire switches. Ashes. Enough provisions to last till the end of time. Ashes. Real, live human beings, from old to young to very young. Ashes.

As the fire roared, abandoned ammo retorted into the prairie air. Don’t go off without me, it said.

Ah, yes, that precious ammunition. Praise the Lord and pass it. Save yourself. Lock and load. Women and children last.

Let’s all sing the praises of ammunition today. Stand and sing.

Combustible

While the compound burned to the ground, TV commentators observed that the stockpiled weapons and explosives likely would make the blaze even more ferocious. Judging by the blaze, that was impossible.

As to the situation itself, clearly one man’s fixation with weaponry made things combustible. Someday someone was going to get killed, and someone would justify it in the Lord’s name.

As for the response by federal agents, we are left today feeling the impotence of absolute power. Some of us want to believe — like Vernon Howell — that deadly force ultimately is the only thing that works, the only thing that will make people reason.

Go figure.

The only thing guaranteed by deadly force is death. Usually one death results in another. We should stop worshipping at this altar.

Lonely eye-witnesses

We awake this morning and wonder if it was just a dream — the bloodshed; the agonizing wait; the sudden, devastating climax.

Never before has there been such a vivid example of how, in our information-age omniscience, we are really helpless and hapless onlookers. All that we can supply is body English.

Never before has there been such a demonstration that the axioms of militarism — namely that might equals right — can’t perform brain surgery and can’t convert souls.

It has been an out-of-body experience for the people of Waco, seeing themselves through a warped looking glass with the rest of the world watching.

People continents away pressed their fingers against the TV screen. Two months of saturation coverage and they didn’t know Waco any better than they knew Vernon Howell. And keeping an eye on his compound didn’t give us control over the situation. More likely, we were the ones being controlled.

Ultimately we were left depending on brute force when reason failed. Reason might have prevailed two years ago when concerns about a mass suicide first emerged. But when stand-off Day 51 rolled around, the government played its trump card.

Howell would be reasonable in the end, not take followers to their deaths with him. Right?

Live and learn. You and I can do that.

John Young’s column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday.

Read the Tribune-Herald's 7-part investigative series on the inner workings of the Branch Davidians. Hours after Part 2 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.

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.

Federal officials left the compound site in late May 1993. As identifications of bodies continued, questions about the survivors, the compound and the cult itself began to emerge.

As the world began to take a critical look back at the events and legal proceedings continue, the ATF's bombshell report forces a shakeup at the top after the raid gone "tragically wrong."

In 1994, the surviving Davidians went on trial in San Antonio. Over six weeks, more than 140 witnesses testified, with the verdict coming just two days prior to the anniversary of the ATF raid.

The Rodenville shootout and the 1988 trial, the end of the world in 1959 and more stories from deep in the Trib archives.