Excerpts from FRONTLINE interview with Dr. Nizam Peerwani, Chief Medical Examiner for the Tarrant County Medical Examiner's District, in Northcentral Texas. Interview conducted August 1, 1995. (As of November 1995, Dr. Nizam Peerwani was still chief Tarrant County medical examiner.)
Q: In your analysis of cause of death, what did you find?
A: We had a total of 33 bodies from within the bunker. There were 25 children, and the remaining were adults, mostly women, I remember there was one or two adults -- young adults, males, there. Most of them had died as a result of smoke inhalation or suffocation. And a couple of them had died as a result of blunt trauma due to collapsing debris. There was this young Jane Doe who had a fractured neck, a cervical fracture. She probably died quickly as a result of that. But there were at least three kids who had been shot to death. And one was stabbed to death. The remaining, of course, died of suffocation or smoke inhalation.
Q: Were you able to determine how many, if any of them, died prior to the fire?
A: We did discover the presence of carbon monoxide as well as evidence of
inhalation in at least 50 of the victims throughout the compound. Now, remember there were
some 75 bodies left in the compound, that died as a result of the 19th of April disaster.
Of these, there were 50 we could document presence of carbon monoxide as well as some
evidence of smoke inhalation. So we're pretty sure they were alive when the fire broke
The remaining 25, because of state of decomposition, or perhaps because they were wearing face masks or perhaps because of the location in the bunker, we did not detect or see any smoke or any carbon monoxide present. We couldn't say with absolute certainty that all of them had perished -- perished as a result of fire. But you can say that some had died of suffocation, at least nine. There was one particular case that we didn't know why the person died. We left the cause as undetermined.
Q: Can you describe what must have happened to the women and children that you found there? Can you reconstruct their last moments from what you found there?
A: There has been a lot of speculation if this is a mass suicide or not. And -- Did they all go there to die? Ah, we don't really think do. What I feel personally is that they tried to escape. A bunker was perhaps the safest area in the compound.
Q: There were a number of adult males that you determined died of gunshot wounds. Could you describe those bodies, where they were found and the cause of death?
A: David Koresh and Schneider were lying next to each other in their little room, which we call the communication room. And David Koresh had a single gunshot wound up his forehead. A high velocity gunshot. When the bullet entered his forehead and exited at the back of the head. Schneider was shot once in the mouth -- the bullet entered the upper palate and also had -- exited in the back -- also had a high velocity gunshot wound. The question is: Did David Koresh shoot himself and Schneider shoot himself? Or did Schneider shoot David Koresh and then turn around and shoot himself? Certainly both are possible. We cannot be certain as to what really transpired.
Q: Can you talk about the possible residue from the gas attacks? Was there any that you found in these victims?
A: No. We looked for the gas there. The gas that was used was CS gas--it's really a
tear gas. It's generally used for crowd dispersal. We looked for the parent compound in
all the victims that we had tissues and blood to examine. We also looked for the
metabolite of the drug. Specifically, the o-chlorobenzaldehyde and malononitrile, which
had two byproducts of the CS gas. And we didn't detect any in any of the cases.
There's no doubt there was exposure. But we also know that the CS gas has an extremely short confine, five to ten minutes. It is rapidly eliminated from the body. There were some bodies where we had no specimens to analyze.
Q: Was there any residue from the propellant used in the launching of the ferret rounds--any sort of combination of chemicals or residue?
A: No. We did a rather comprehensive drug analysis and separate cyanate studies. Cyanate, of course, is a toxic gas but usually as a result of fire also. We did pick up a small amount of cyanide in the bodies of some of the victims. In fact 40 of them had cyanide. But every living person has cyanide. Some of them had slightly higher amount of cyanide. Fire of course produces a lot of cyanide. Especially if there are plastics. And we did what is called a mass spectrometry screening for anything and everything that's possible within a certain range of spectrum. And we picked up nothing extraneous. So I can tell you that we didn't detect any propellants or any of the CS gas in the bodies.
Q: You did pick up cyanide though on 40 victims?
Q: And there's no way to tell if in fact the cyanide that was produced in the process of gassing had any role in the deaths of the victims?
A: Let's put it this way. We did not attribute CS gas as a cause of death in any of those cases.
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March 8, 1993
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