Justices of Peace James Collier, Cindy Evans, David Pareya and John Cabaniss have been poring over the charred ruins of Mount Carmel to help recover the bodies of those who died when fire swept through the compound Monday.

So far, officials have found 44 bodies and sent 40 of them to the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office for autopsies.

The justices are required by law to “get the vital information needed to help us determine the cause of death, and we note such things as where the bodies were found, the condition of the bodies, anything that might be surrounding the body,” Pareya said.

The bodies at the Mount Carmel site are burned beyond recognition, and many were so hot that they turned to dust, Pareya said. On others, many of the limbs are missing or the bones have turned to ash because of the intense heat from the fire.

In some cases, Cabaniss said, it isn’t clear if the body is that of a woman or a child, so looking for possessions may be the only way to identify some of the people.

“There are a lot of things that might be around the body that can assist you in determining identity,” Pareya said, such as watches and jewelry.

“We’re trying to be, I won’t say reverent, but we want to pay homage to the dead, not let them lie out in the open,” he added.

Pareya called the site “very devastating.”

“Just a needless situation really,” he said. “Everyone was doing their job, what we have to do…it’s going to affect everyone differently, you don’t see this every day. It was not pleasant at all.”

Cabaniss, a 34-year justice of the peace who claims to have seen thousands of bodies during his tenure, called the site “desolate” and the worst he has ever witnessed.

He described the process as saddening and very unpleasant.

“It’s like a cloud over you…like a black one for a while,” Cabaniss said. “Seeing a human being reduced to blackness is saddening.”

Evans called the sight of the charred ruins and bodies “very sobering.”

In addition to removing the bodies, the justices of the peace have had to contend with the danger of live ammunition and weapons that remain in the ruins of the Branch Davidian stronghold.

Collier said, “There must be millions of rounds of ammunition there that has not been exploded by fire…absolutely that bunker is full of ammunition.”

“We walked very lightly,” Pareya said. “Guns were around everywhere, some here…they were just everywhere.”

Cabaniss and Collier also saw weapons and pieces of guns with the bodies. Many of the guns were near the bodies, indicating the Davidians were armed even as they died.

“They were prepared,” Cabaniss said. “That was certainly no church that was out there.

“It’s beyond horror,” he said. “You wonder how anyone could follow anybody that leads them to a path of destruction like this.”

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.