Forensic experts began their grim task Wednesday of sifting through what’s left of the Mount Carmel compound, while one survivor of the disaster began her trip through the federal criminal justice system.

Wednesday was the soonest that experts could actually enter the scene of the fire that may have claimed the lives of more than 80 Branch Davidians Monday.

A Department of Public Safety spokesman told reporters there were still hot spots and smoke among the ashes, and between 30 and 40 bodies already are clearly visible on the surface of the rubble. The Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office in Fort Worth was scheduled to provide a refrigerated tractor-trailer to serve as a morgue, said Justice of the Peace David Pareya.

Members of the federal disaster team will help the office remove the bodies, and Pareya and fellow justices of the peace Cindy Evans and James Collier will oversee removal of the bodies, in accordance with Texas law.

Department of Public Safety experts began laying out a grid — similar to what would be done at an archaeological site — so that every body and everything removed from the ashes could be located later.

Among the debris they encountered in an initial survey were huge quantities of canned goods and other food, stored there for the cult members’ use in case of a long siege.

DPS spokesman said work is proceeding slowly and carefully on the site, with only a handful of technicians actually walking through the ashes and foundation of the compound.

“At this point, we are at the absolute most critical part of the investigation,” said DPS spokesman Chuck McDonald. “Even a very small mistake at this stage could become very big later on…We are building a foundation today for the entire investigation.”

McDonald said the 30 to 40 figure is for charred corpses clearly visible, and more probably lie beneath the surface of the rubble.

DPS spokesman Mike Cox said 55 DPS lab technicians and Texas Rangers are moving slowly to build a “complete historical record” of what happened Monday.

McDonald also said that while Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents had completed a sweep of the disaster site and pronounced it clear of explosives and booby traps, they have not searched the 77-acre plot of surrounding land.

Three Davidians pulled from the flames Monday and airlifted to Parkland Hospital in Dallas remained there.

Marjorie Thomas, 30, and Misty Ferguson, 17, remained in critical condition in the hospital’s burn unit, while Clive Joseph Doyle, 52, was listed in good condition.

Meanwhile, survivors of the fire that may have claimed almost 90 lives continued making their ways through the federal justice system.

Ruth Ottman Riddle was released from Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center Wednesday, where she had been since escaping the fiery compound.

Riddle, who broke an ankle and suffered burns, was wheeled in and out of a hearing in a wheelchair by U.S. marshals. Federal prosecutors are seeking to have her held in jail as a material witness, and she went through her initial appearance at the Waco federal building.

U.S. Magistrate Dennis Green ordered her held without bond until a detention hearing Monday.

Riddle’s sister-in-law, Rita Riddle, was brought to the federal courthouse for a hearing on conspiracy charges lodged against her. Rita Riddle, who came out of the compound March 21, had been living at a halfway house.

Also having a hearing was Brad Branch, the Branch Davidian who came out of the compound March 19. His appeal of an order locking him up in the McLennan County Jail without bond was denied by U.S. District Judge Walter Smith.

His attorney, Richard Ferguson, argued Wednesday that since federal agents said cult leader Vernon Howell only allowed out the people who were “not insiders” in the cult, his client should be given some leniency.

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.