Byron Sage was a special agent in the FBI’s Austin office when he was called in to be the lead negotiator with the Branch Davidian’s during the infamous 1993 standoff. He was interviewed last year, along with other government agents, local Waco law enforcement, and some of the survivors, by Pamela Colloff in her Texas Monthly 15th anniversary article “The Fire That Time”. (Unfortunately, full access to TM articles is subscription only, or I’d provide a link to the article.)
I’ve come to terms with the fact that no one will ever be able to know what happened at Mount Carmel, especially regarding the key issue: was the fire started by those inside or out. (But see, and I mean see, put it on your Netflix queue right now, the 1997 documentary Waco: The Rules of Engagement; you still won’t know what really went down, but you’ll be convinced that the official government line, especially as sold by the federal prosecutors at the trial, was deliberately false, aka “a lie”.)
Decent article if you feel like reading a retrospective on the subject, but here’s the part that jumped out at me. At the top of the magazine cover is the teaser for the article, “ ‘There’s a special place in hell for David Koresh.’ An oral history of the Branch Davidian standoff”. Where’s that come from?
Well, the article is primarily a series of quotes from participants inside and out, and frankly it seems slightly skewed towards the FBI’s official version of events, although there are plenty of dissenting viewpoints from insiders. The quotes take us on a chronological journey of the whole crisis, and by the time the building is in flames, we read this quote from the main negotiator:
I was in a daze. I walked outside and I could feel the heat radiating on my face from two hundred yards away.
The building was collapsing in on itself and reduced to about eighteen inches of rubble.
I stood there and watched that place burn. I’ll never forget the stench and the heat and the magnitude of that moment. Rounds were cooking off, and there were explosions every now and then.
Fair description from an on scene witness, I’m sure. But here’s how that quotation ends, and it’s from the guy whose only job description was to attempt to convince the Davidians that the FBI wanted to end the standoff peacefully:
….I don’t give a damn about the parents; it was their decision to stay inside. They’re responsible for it… There’s a special place in hell for David Koresh.
In the ellipses he talks about the children who died, and expresses appropriate sympathy for them. And it’s probably a natural human reaction by many who feel they know the facts to feel anger at the parents for subjecting their little ones to even the slightest possibility of such a terrible and horrifying demise.
But, even if it was fifteen years after the fact, doesn’t saying “I don’t give a damn about the parents” tell us he was probably the wrong person to assign the job of chief negotiator? No wonder the survivors said they didn’t feel they could trust what the FBI was telling them. Maybe they instinctively knew the agency just didn’t give a damn about them at all.