Surviving the Waco siege

An ex-Branch Davidian haunted by Koresh's ghost opens up 20 years after the inferno

Arts+Culture Feature
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As I walk into the lobby of the Waco Central Library, the scars and skin grafts covering Clive Doyle’s hands and neck drive home the point that the past isn’t always easily left behind. Though many in Waco, Texas are eager to forget the events of April 19, 1993, Doyle, who lost his daughter and closest friends that day, isn’t in a hurry to move on.

It’s 20 years ago now since the world watched as a building on the outskirts of the city burned to the ground with 76 men, women and children inside. The fire was the conclusion of a 51-day stand-off between US law enforcement and the Branch Davidians religious group; it began as a raid for illegal guns, but quickly turned into international news as camera crews rushed to Waco to capture the increasingly bizarre events occurring at Mount Carmel Center, a combination dormitory and church. After exchanging gunfire with the authorities attempting to execute their search warrant, the heavily armed Branch Davidians – led by David Koresh, a young, guitar-playing, self-proclaimed prophet – holed up in the compound, waiting for a sign from God. Instead they got a tear-gas attack from the FBI, precipitating the tragedy’s burning climax.

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Since then, Waco has worked to distance itself from the events that brought it on to the world stage. For many, the religious rhetoric, the handpainted signs hung out of the windows, the actions of the overzealous police force and the flames that engulfed the building are all they associate with the city. Today, local officials avoid talking about it and are understandably interested in leaving the past behind. But not everyone has been able to do so.

One of only nine survivors of the Mount Carmel fire, the 72-year-old Doyle remains a steadfast follower of David Koresh’s teachings. He has grey-streaked hair, a tinge of accent from his native Australia and an easy, grandfatherly demeanour. But as we talk, it’s clear that he is feeling out what kind of interview this will be. There are a lot of people that come to me with an agenda,” Doyle says. “People will try to make you seem crazy. They’ll try to provoke you into arguing with them, they’ll try to pair you with a Hare Krishna just to see what happens.”

At this point, I’m just treading water. That may sound defeatist, but I’ve been doing this a long time. God can do the work now

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Doyle speaks about his experiences in a careful, pragmatic way. He quotes biblical prophecies, but not, I suspect, with the same zeal as when he travelled through Australia and England in the 1980s espousing the teachings of Koresh, who at the time was in the process of taking over the Branch Davidians (the church has existed since the 50s). The remaining handful of followers have more or less abandoned their vision of building a community to prepare for the end of the world. “At this point, I’m not trying to proselytise – I’m just treading water,” Doyle says. “That may sound defeatist, but I’ve been doing this a long time. God can do the work now.”

Later, we travel to a local Chinese buffet in Doyle’s maroon minivan, passing through the standard landscape of small-town Texas – a rhythmic pattern of churches, gas stations and strip malls. Though it seems pedestrian to me, for Doyle these sights serve as a constant reminder of his losses.

At lunch, I finally ask him the question I had been turning over in my head for the whole journey: after all you’ve been through, why stay in Waco? After a long pause, he says, “If I liked to look at the negative side of my life, I could say that I’ve never completed anything. I never finished high school. I never finished trade school. I got married, but the marriage didn’t work. When I came to Waco, it was supposed to just be a stop on the way to Israel. But I’m still here.”

It’s clear that continuing to follow David Koresh is a way for Doyle not to give up. He maintains his beliefs to hold on to his only chance at seeing his daughter and friends again. He stays in this city in the hope of finally finishing the journey God set him on. Waco, though it was never the end goal, is his only connection to the most important things in his life.

At Mount Carmel, beyond the monuments commemorating those who died during the siege, you can still see some charred remains of the compound. However, nature is slowly working to overtake what’s left of 1993. A tree grows through the window of the melted, twisted shell of a school bus. A lone duck glides through the murky water that fills what was the building’s storm shelter. The concrete swimming pool today holds the rainwater collection system for a new church.

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A lot of people that come to me with an agenda. People will try to make you seem crazy, to provoke you into arguing with them. They’ll try to pair you with a Hare Krishna just to see what happens

Standing just feet away from the blackened concrete slabs and eerie debris is The Branch, a chapel newly built by a faction of Branch Davidians who chose not to follow Koresh when he took over. On its porch is Charles Pace, their leader, who says he sees the remnants of this tragedy on a daily basis. In fact, he finds them encouraging. “David Koresh and the tragedy that followed were sent by God as a warning of what’s to come,” he says. Talking for over an hour in the Texas sun, gesturing constantly toward the rubble, he details how the Bible tells of an apostate movement that will be destroyed at the site where the world’s final battle will take place. Pace claims not to be a prophet himself, but makes clear that he believes Koresh’s downfall to be a message from God that his own end-times vision will soon come true.

In 2013, the Waco siege doesn’t seem like a cautionary tale. On the walk back to the car, the weeds and wildflowers sprouting through the charred concrete are a reminder that, for the people involved in the tragedy here, the whole affair was just another step in a long line of prophecies, schisms, deaths and rebirths.

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