Bullets and fire. Nearly 100 dead. Federal law officers. Innocent children. Expectant mothers. Devoted disciples. And one smooth-talking con man — a charismatic liar who called himself Messiah. Jesus Christ and Lamb of God.

A tiny few will say it was God’s will. The rest believe the tragedy was caused by non-spiritual blunders. But no one involved admits to making a mistake. It just happened. Its fault lies elsewhere.

But if the disastrous series of events at the Branch Davidian compound outside of Waco wasn’t preordained, surely it was preventable. That must be determined. Not to assess blame, but to prevent similar tragedies in the future.

Congress and the White House studiously avoided the fatally botched Feb. 28 raid on the heavily armed compound. Unable to spot an advantage, our politicians laid low during the 51-day siege. But following Monday’s deadly inferno, every committee and subcommittee chairman in Congress is prepared to launch a probe and grab some headlines.

The Republicans see a chance to embarrass the new administration and President Clinton, who first seemed to say the buck stops over there. Later he gave his full backing to Attorney General Janet Reno, who said the buck stops with her. Chronic critics of the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms are crying carpe diem in full throat. Law-and-order-at-any-cost pols are ready to man the battlements against the slightest criticism of the federal law enforcement agencies.

Another ingredient is the great lump of anti-government citizens who are unswervingly critical of the ATF and FBI. And they certainly do not trust Treasury and Justice officials to fairly investigate their own conduct.

No place for politics

Politics should be put aside. Either Congress or the president should initiate an independent investigation into an event that began and ended in tragedy. An impartial investigation needs to determine what went wrong during the initial Feb. 28 ATF assault on the compound that left four ATF agents dead and 16 wounded. Six cult members reportedly died in that Sunday morning gunbattle. Is an armed assault on a heavily armed cult led by a paranoid apocalyptic fanatic the best way to serve search and arrest warrants?

An independent investigation also could look into the FBI’s decision to back the same apocalyptic psychopath into a corner, leaving cult leader Vernon Howell, or David Koresh, with only two options — defeat or death. FBI officials say they made the best decision. So do the FBI director, attorney general and president.

No more waiting

Despite claims to the contrary, FBI officials appear to have gotten their fill of Koresh who was given a Monday morning warning to “submit to proper authorities” or face a gas assault from armored vehicles. “At this point, we are not negotiating,” said FBI agent Bob Ricks several hours after the gas assault. Several hours later Koresh and most of his flock had burned to death.

Reno said the decision to gas the compound was influenced by the need to give the federal hostage rescue team a break. She also said she felt a sense of urgency due to reports that the children inside the compound had been sexually and physically abused. But were these reports news? Two years ago reports were made directly to federal, state and local authorities of statutory rape, physical and psychological abuse of children, polygamy and sham marriages within the cult. Nothing was done.

Perhaps the real lesson to be learned from this tragedy will be the horrific consequences of failing to act soon enough to early warnings. An independent investigation, either a special prosecutor or a presidential commission, should provide the public with confidence in the results and some valuable lessons to help prevent future tragedies.

Rowland Nethaway’s column appears Wednesdays and Fridays.

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.