In the days since the fiery finale at Mount Carmel, Waco Mayor Bob Sheehy has become almost as well known to television viewers as the FBI agents who each day briefed the world on the standoff.
At news conferences, one-on-one interviews and even prayer services, Sheehy pitched a by-now familiar message:
It’s not Waco’s fault. The Mount Carmel compound stood outside the city limits. Only a few of the Branch Davidians, led by Vernon Howell, also known as David Koresh, had roots in the area.
Waco, according to Sheehy and others, joins a list of cities — among them Dallas and Killeen — that have been unjustly stained because of the twisted actions of a single man.
“I’m trying to meet as many requests for interviews that the news media will allow me to do. Right now, while it’s fresh on their minds. I try to say it really was not Waco, or even its citizens involved,” Sheehy said.
Get the word out
“The more we can tell the story right now and get it out in the world, the better chance we’ve got to softening it some. After that, all you can do is just continue to publicize the city as we’ve been doing,” he said.
And in words that are designed for local residents as much as for outsiders, Sheehy reminds inquisitors of the May 1953 tornado, Waco’s worst natural disaster and an event still etched in the town’s psyche.
“I’ve told them that this is not the first tragedy we’ve been through and explained what occurred with the tornado and how that . . . brought us together and made us even more of a community perhaps than we had before,” Sheehy said.
Killeen Mayor pro-tem Fred Latham said Sheehy has the right idea. Latham was the Bell County city’s chief spokesman after George Hennard shot to death 23 people at the Luby’s restaurant there on October 16, 1991.
As with Waco, the massacre brought news media from around the world to Killeen. Despite all the attention, Latham said, Killeen has not suffered any long-lasting negative effects.
“In my travelling throughout the United States, I find people have a vague remembrance. They wonder why they remember the name Killeen,” he said.
Sheehy thinks mention of Waco will bring a similar response. He adds, though, “I think it’s not going to be quite as easy for us because, No. 1, the length of time. Here we’ve gone 51 days in the sight of all the news media.”
A local public relations executive said Waco’s long-term image will be shaped by how the city handles the current crisis.
“It seems to me that Waco can put itself on the map depending on how it responds to this and how it heals from it,” said David Clanton.
One of Waco’s biggest supporters in the national media said the city is in no way responsible for what happened at Mount Carmel.
“I don’t find very many people who see this as a Waco problem, who blame Waco or think it’s endemic to Waco,” said CBS News anchor Dan Rather, who was in town covering the story last week. “I don’t find people thinking that way at all.”
Local residents, Rather said, deserve all the credit for that. Rather drew kudos from the local chamber of commerce after he wrote a column singing Waco’s praise.
“I have not found anyone — reporter, producer, whatever — who wasn’t impressed by friendliness of the people. Some stories in the beginning raised hackles on the backs of my neck. But those who wrote them were turned around by the friendliness,” Rather said.
What may be hardest to forget for local residents may be the cruel, apparently unnecessary deaths of 17 children at Mount Carmel, Sheehy said.
As a father of six and grandfather of six, Sheehy said that part of the tragedy moved him most.
“The children, they were sacrificed,” he said. “And if you’ve got a family, that’s hard to fathom.”
Waco, though, will soon move ahead with its business, Sheehy said. He said he hopes Friday’s “day of healing,” marked a new chapter in the tragedy as attention shifts to related developments elsewhere.
“Within 30 days, we’ll get a better idea of how the city is going to react long term. I’m confident that we’re going to become stronger because it’s been such a tragic thing,” Sheehy said.
Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce President Jack Stewart said he thinks Waco will bounce back. Elsewhere, memories of Monday’s flames will fade, but not the memories of Waco.