Rachelle Wansik, a 20-year-old Baylor University senior, says she’s been asked some unusual questions during her long distance phone calls.
All reflect interest in the Mount Carmel siege, in which religious cult leader Vernon Howell and his followers resisted arrest on federal weapons charges. A gunfight ensued, and members refused to leave their compound for 51 days until a fire killed most.
“I’ll call friends and they’ll ask ‘Are you burning up?’ ” said Wansik, whose hometown is Houston. “I’ll tell them it’s 11 miles away — not even close.”
She said Waco’s reputation is affected by the news event that she compared to the Jeffrey Dahmer story.
“I think Waco will have a while to recover,” said Wansik, an education major. “It’s sad that people died, although it was almost like it was their own doing. It was their decision. The big thing was all the children.”
Now that the Branch Davidian standoff has come to its final, tragic ending, what effect will it have upon the people of Waco?
Although the majority of Waco residents were not involved in what probably ranks as the most bizarre and deadly chapter in local history, outsiders may not realize this.
An exclusive poll sponsored by the Tribune-Herald and conducted by the Baylor Center for Community Research and Development has found that many Waco residents, like Wansik, are receiving calls from out-of-town people who think they may have some inside information about the cult — or that they faced danger during the shootout and the fire.
Such are some of the effects of the cult standoff upon townspeople. But are there other effects, and if so, what are they?
Various Waco residents interviewed by the Tribune-Herald have different opinions, but all say they and their acquaintances have been the most upset about the fate of Mount Carmel’s children. Seventeen youngsters, along with 86 adults, are believed to have perished in the fire that swept through the cult compound Monday.
“This has gotten to everybody,” said Vivian Stidvent, a psychologist and founder of the Central Texas Women’s Network.
Stidvent, who is helping to lead a Red Cross-sponsored group that will help people deal with disasters, said the Mount Carmel standoff and its aftermath will have psychological effects for many. She said she’s already counseled a resident who lived near the compound, who told her of the smell caused by the fire.
Others tell her they don’t want to read the news because they are too overwhelmed to deal with any more facts. This contrasts with findings of the Baylor poll, in which an overwhelming 99 percent of respondents say they have heard or read about the Mount Carmel raid and standoff.
“This has just blown everybody’s mind,” Stidvent said. “There’s a numbness about it, a shock and denial. As time goes on it will become more and more real to people.”
Even people who function very well in a crisis are probably going to find they’re affected by this, she said. “If you have nightmares, it doesn’t mean you’re crazy,” she added.
Stidvent said the situation is beyond the scope of normal coping mechanisms for many. She said people should not be reluctant to seek help if they are depressed.
“When normal people are dealing with a monstrous, abnormal situation, their normal coping mechanisms don’t work,” she explained. “The way to deal with something like this is to talk about it. If they can work it out then and there, they’ll be less likely to have effects later.”
Cries for help
Mary Cantrell, executive director of the Mental Health Association, says people — most of whom have had nothing to do with the situation except for following it in the news — are calling her office for help.
She said many say that they are depressed or upset over the tragedy.
“I think the people who call represent only a very small percentage of folks who are affected,” she said. “That’s not the experience everywhere.”
“We’ve had fewer phone calls on this tragedy than anything,” at DePaul Center, said its spokeswoman Judy Delany. “For whatever reason, all those people out there who are loaded with anxiety are focusing on the media instead of the psych hospitals.”
Delany said the psychiatric facility has received more calls from reporters than from people seeking help.
Rebecca Adams, a nurse who treated ATF officers in Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center’s emergency department, said she has written a motto —“forever changed” — on her computer sign-on. That’s how she feels about the Mount Carmel incident, Adams said.
“It will always be a part of me,” she said. Adams said she thinks about the same will be true of Waco, the nearest city to the rural location of the cult headquarters.
“Waco is a town of 100,000 or more but it has a small town heart,” she said. “I just think it will affect us.”
“Our community needs to steadily recover from the grief from being involuntary hosts to a major tragedy,” says the Rev. Dan Bagby, pastor of Seventh & James Baptist Church, a large congregation surrounded by the Baylor University campus. “We are still numb and sad.”
Did Howell die?
Around the city, some people speculate — and fear — that cult leader Vernon Howell, also known as David Koresh, could possibly still be alive.
“We don’t think Koresh is dead,” said Sue Chadwick, a receptionist at Cottage Beauty Salon. “I’ve talked to other people and they say the same thing.”
Cantrell said those who wonder whether Howell could have survived cannot believe that someone who so skillfully manipulated law enforcement officers and the media would want to die.
Universally, hearts go out to the children who died.
“It was a tragedy,” Stidvent said. “I don’t sleep two nights because of the kids.”
Mary Fadal, principal of St. Alban’s School, said students there were largely kept in the dark about the cult fire.
“We did have a prayer in chapel and our church rang the bells at noon Friday,” she said. “We did not turn on the TV or have class discussion.
“Some children are very sensitive,” she said. “I did not want to offend any parents or cause a child to have nightmares.”
On the positive said, Cantrell said, she believes the Mount Caramel incident may bring Waco a greater sense of community. “It may serve to pull us together a little bit more.”