It was a close call, but forensics experts think they still might be able to identify cult leader Vernon Howell among the charred human remains at the Branch Davidian compound.

Forensic orthodontist Rodney Crow of the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office said authorities first thought there were no dental records for Howell, also known as David Koresh.

“I have been promised, and supposedly they’re on their way now, that we have before and after treatment study models of David Koresh by an orthodontist. That would be adequate to do an identification” — assuming Koresh’s body still has its teeth, Crow said.

The sprawling Mount Carmel complex went up in flames Monday after federal agents began knocking holes and injecting tear gas into the building. The FBI attributes the blaze to arson as cult members chose suicide over surrender.

The roaring blaze, fanned by high winds and abetted by explosions, leveled the complex inside of an hour. As many as 86 people, including 17 children, may have died in the flaming building.

Crow said four bodies were removed from the charred wreckage Friday — three adult women and a child of 3 or 4, bringing the total removed to 44.

Forty bodies have been taken to the medical examiner’s office for autopsies.

The uncertainty about identifying Howell highlights again the tremendous heat of the blaze that consumed the compound.

Chief medical examiner Nizam Peerwani told reporters that some of the bodies are so badly ravaged by the fire that there might not be enough left even for DNA testing and identification.

Peerwani told reporters that the concrete vault has become a focus of investigation — in more ways than one. He said about four bodies are visible inside the concrete structure — the only standing part of what was a three story compound.

One problem for searchers is that the bodies in the 12-foot-high bunker that once formed the base of the compound’s watchtower are buried partly in ammunition.

As if to illustrate the point, DPS spokesman Chuck McDonald said a small explosion tossed debris into the air at the site about 4:18 p.m. Friday.

Another problem, Peerwani said, is that crews must shore up the bunker before any more exploration goes on inside.

So body recovery will come nearly to a halt this weekend while the bunker is stabilized and while a team of dentists works to identify the bodies already in Fort Worth.

During the lull, arson investigators will do their work, seeking to identify accelerants that might have been used to speed the blaze’s progress through the compound.

Peerwani said technicians in Fort Worth will try to piece together the skulls of many of the victims to determine if members committed suicide as the flames approached. He said he still can’t confirm a Justice Department report that three of the bodies had bullet holes in them.

The bodies recovered so far have been visible at the surface of the piled debris. In the near future, Crow said, crews will begin digging to find the bodies of those who were buried deep in the collapsing building.

Meanwhile, despite reports that former top Howell lieutenant Paul Fatta has decided to surrender to the Texas Rangers, DPS spokesman Mike Cox said Fatta has not been heard from.

“That’s just fine if that’s the case,” Cox said. “He’s welcome to contact us, and we’ll be happy to visit with him.”

To help deal with one of the largest crime scenes in state history, troopers have set up five portable buildings to process the evidence found in the ruins, Cox said. The setup includes a computer system that will help officers keep track of what was found where.

Authorities Friday also released the tape of the phone call by the FBI command post to the Waco Fire Department Monday summoning help when the fire first started.

“Sir, I’d say it’s a pretty good fire. The entire compound is going up right now,” the unidentified FBI agent said, when asked how many units should respond.

Records show that fire trucks from Waco arrived at the compound about 12:43 p.m. Federal agents have said they held the trucks back for fear firefighters might come under gunfire.

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.