July 29, 1995 in Nation/World

Koresh Responsible For Deaths, Experts Say

Steven Thomma Knight-Ridder

Residents of the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, intentionally set the fire that destroyed their building and then remained inside despite having ample time to flee, arson experts told Congress on Friday.

Using an infrared videotape, University of Maryland arson expert James Quintere graphically displayed how at least three fires erupted almost simultaneously in different parts of the compound on April 19, 1993.

“These three fires that occurred nearly one minute apart were intentionally set from within the compound,”

Quintere said. Quintere also discounted the theory that the Davidians were trapped inside. They had at least five minutes and as long as 20 minutes to escape the small building, he said.

Dismissing as impossible one of the most persistent conspiracy theories, he said that evidence shows the fires were not touched off by FBI tanks, nor fueled or ignited by FBI tear gas.

“The worst part of the conspiracy theory that is running in parts of this country is that the fire was deliberately lit by government agents who wanted to burn these women and children,” said Rep. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.

“We know from the evidence … that the fire was lit by (Davidian sect leader) David Koresh.”

Theories of a government conspiracies shadow the House inquiry. Hearing Co-Chairman Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla., has said he wants the 10 days of hearings to answer once and for all many lingering questions about the Waco affair.

But another House Republican suggested Friday that some of his GOP colleagues appear more interested in making partisan points than in determining the truth as they investigate Waco.

Rep. Jim Ross Lightfoot, R-Iowa, in a conference call with Iowa radio reporters, labeled the hearings “a media circus for a few people to drive a political agenda and for some new members of Congress to gain a degree of notoriety at the expense of a lot of others,” the Associated Press reported.

“From what little I’ve seen, the level of venom and hatred that I hear coming from some members of Congress obviously leads someone to believe they have some very strong preconceptions, and they’re not really going to be deterred one way or another by what the truth is,” said Lightfoot, who is not a member of the panels investigating Waco.

Friday’s testimony was aimed directly at one of the most dramatic conspiracy theories: that the tanks used by the FBI to punch holes in the compound and insert tear gas actually were armed with flame throwers.

One conspiracy videotape being circulated around the country purports to show a tank flashing fire from its turret as the picture stops in a freeze frame. However, when the rest of the same video is seen unedited, it shows that what looks like flames actually is glare off a piece of sheet metal from the building caught on the turret.

“The flame throwing tank did not happen,” said fire expert Rick Sherrow, a former Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent who was otherwise highly critical of the ATF and the federal government.

Though Sherrow said evidence was not conclusive about the origin of the conflagration, Paul Gray, who was acting director of the city of Houston Arson Bureau at the time and worked with Quintere on the official Waco arson investigation, agreed that the fire was intentionally set inside the compound.

Also Friday, the top officials of the FBI and Justice Department at the time of the siege denied repeatedly that they were pressured by President Clinton to take action to resolve the standoff.

Former FBI Director William Sessions said he did not talk to anyone at the White House about the siege during the 51 days. Former Associate Attorney General Webster Hubbell said he informed the White House counsel’s office about the impending use of tear gas, but that he never discussed it personally with the president until after the raid.

Hubbell said Attorney General Janet Reno told Clinton about using tear gas, but said the president did not take part in the decision.

He said the president only “wanted to be advised if there was going to be any change” in status at the Texas compound.

Reno, who is scheduled to testify as the hearing’s last witness next Tuesday, accepted responsibility for the botched siege at the time, and again this week.

But Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., said the buck may have stopped prematurely at her desk.

“She works for somebody and we know who that is, and that’s the chief executive officer of the land,” he said.

Hubbell countered that the committee should focus its blame on Koresh.

“He is the one who murdered those people. It’s sad, we live with it, we dream about it, but the blame lies at the feet of David Koresh, not the president of the United States, not the attorney general, not the people who are at this table.”

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