The tragic end of the Branch Davidian standoff at Mount Carmel started to hit home Tuesday for the firefighters who battled the hopeless blaze.
The Hallsburg volunteer Fire Department had six people at the fire.
Hallsburg Fire Chief Tony Pavelka said the fire’s many fatalities will be hard on the firefighters.
“We’ll get over it — maybe,” he said. “It’s not nice to go to something like that.”
Fire departments from Waco, Bellmead, Gholson, Northcrest and Hallsburg helped douse the blaze. Jess Wilbanks, a Hallsburg volunteer firefighter for 25 years, said the destruction at the scene was not new to him.
“I’ve seen so much of that in the past,” Wilbanks said. “I am used to it. It’s hard to get used to.”
Freedom of choice
Wilbanks said the apparent deaths of the Davidian children affected him most. The adults, he added, had a chance to come out of the compound during the standoff.
“They had a choice, but they didn’t take it. I don’t feel sorry for them. I feel sorry for the kids.”
Most of the firefighters interviewed would not talk about the debris left from the blaze. They said the situation was still under investigation.
But Wilbanks said he saw what appeared to be two bodies on top of the concrete bunker at the site.
Pavelka said the bunker is all that survived from an earlier electrical fire at the compound.
That fire — in the early 1980s — burned a large, wood-framed building that held the cult’s vault and printing equipment.
At that time, the Davidians lived in separate houses in the compound.
“That’s the old vault that the other fire out there didn’t destroy,” Pavelka said.
Bellmead Fire Chief James Karl said firefighters were mainly dealing with fatigue Tuesday.
“They are just mostly tired,” he said.
Wayne Freeman, a Bellmead firefighter, said Monday that people react differently to these types of situations.
“Every person is different,” Freeman said. “Everybody is affected differently.”
Waco Fire Chief Robert Mercer said the firefighters who fought the blaze Monday were off Tuesday as part of their regular shift schedule.
“They seem to be handling it all right,” he said.
Waco assistant fire chief R.G. Wilson said none of the firefighters were visibly shaken Monday night.
The firefighters were initially kept away from the compound Monday because federal agents feared they could be hit by gunfire.
“They didn’t let us in there until it was burned down,” Wilbanks said.
Karl said the trucks were stopped at an FBI checkpoint until federal authorities felt the scene was safe.
“The way we looked at the fire, the FBI was in charge of the scene,” he said. “They made sure the scene was safe enough for us to approach the fire.”
Even then, Mercer said, several Waco firefighters were hit by ammunition ignited in the blaze.
“A couple of our firefighters were stung from cartridges exploding,” Mercer said.
Wilson said the call to go to the blaze came into the Waco Fire Department at 12:12 p.m. Mercer said the call came through the 9-1-1 emergency system.
A general fire alarm was sounded, and two fire trucks were dispatched at 12:15 pm., Wilson said.
McLennan County Fire Marshal Alfred Gerik estimated the blaze started at 12:10 p.m.
Wilson said the two fire engines arrived at 12:22 p.m. and 12:23 p.m. at the federal checkpoint at Loop 340 and FM 2419.
A Bellmead pumper truck and a grass truck arrived at the checkpoint shortly thereafter, he said.
Fourteen minutes later, the trucks were led by a state trooper to the compound. The fire trucks actually arrived at the compound at 12:43 p.m. Wilson said.
Karl said all that was left of the Davidians’ buildings Tuesday was “just a bunch of debris and ash.”
Gerik, who like people across the world watched the blaze start on television, said even if firefighters had been on the scene, they might not have been able to save the structures.
“That fire would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, to put out,” Gerik said.
He said the combination of gusty winds, a wooden building and extra ventilation caused by broken windows and holes punched in the building by tanks doomed the structure.