FBI didn't plan to fight Waco fire
Records in extensive sect filing
By Lee Hancock / The Dallas Morning News
Hours after a federal prosecutor cautioned the FBI about the need for
firetrucks at the Branch Davidian compound, the bureau's Waco
commanders sent a message to Washington saying they wouldn't even try
to fight any blaze that might break out.
FBI records show that the two exchanges occurred on April 9, 1993, as
FBI leaders were finalizing plans to assault the sect's compound with tanks
and tear gas.
Lawyers for the sect included the documents in a Wednesday motion
aimed at convincing a federal judge that the FBI's two Waco commanders,
Jeffrey Jamar and Richard Rogers, should remain defendants in the Branch
Davidians' wrongful death lawsuit.
Justice Department attorneys maintain that federal law protects the Waco
commanders from a civil lawsuit arising from their actions in the 1993
Lawyers for the Branch Davidians on Wednesday also released their own
arson experts' report on the fire that consumed the Branch Davidian
compound within hours after the FBI tear gas assault began on April 19,
1993. That report, by Chicago-based fire investigator Patrick Kennedy,
stated that adequate firefighting equipment could have been obtained for
the siege and would have saved many lives.
More than 80 Branch Davidians died in the fire that ended the 51-day
"If the fire had been extinguished in its early stages, there probably would
have been little, if any, loss of life," Mr. Kennedy's report stated.
A document filed with the Branch Davidians' Wednesday motion, a
two-page FBI summary of an April 9 briefing, indicated that Assistant U.S.
Attorney LeRoy Jahn asked FBI leaders in Waco "if there was a firetruck
available in case the Davidians attempted to torch the compound."
A second document, described in the sect's motion as a phone report filed
at FBI headquarters at 7:30 that evening, reported that Waco FBI leaders
were sending Washington their plan for emergency medical treatment
during the proposed tear gas assault. But that report added, "per ... Jamar
and ... Rogers, there would be no plan to fight a fire should one develop in
the Davidian compound."
The Justice Department's lengthy 1993 review of the Waco tragedy gives
no indication that Attorney General Janet Reno was advised of the FBI
commanders' decision. Mr. Jamar later told Congress that he held local
firetrucks back from the compound for more than 40 minutes after it
caught fire because sect members had fired shots at FBI tanks that
morning and he didn't want to endanger firefighters.
The one-page document detailing his April 9 report to FBI headquarters
was filed under court seal. Justice Department lawyers turned the
document over to the Branch Davidians' lawyers on condition that it be
kept confidential and not released to the public, Wednesday's court
pleading indicated, but it was included in the pleading.
Government lawyers contend that Mr. Jamar, the bureau's overall
commander in Waco, and Mr. Rogers, head of its Hostage Rescue Team,
cannot be sued for "judgment calls" even if those lead to tragedy because
they are broadly protected by federal law.
Justice Department lawyers have told U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith
that strict federal limits on how and when the government can be sued
preclude the court from considering whether authorities contributed to the
1993 deaths by ordering tanks to demolish the sect's building and then
refusing to let fire trucks approach after it caught fire.
They have also argued that a report by government arson investigators
ruled that sect members set the fire. That report relied heavily on an
infrared video recorded from an FBI airplane, which showed the heat
signatures of fires erupting within two minutes in three separate parts of the
The government has contended that additional evidence used in the 1994
criminal trials of surviving Branch Davidians supports that claim. In that
case, prosecutors argued that FBI surveillance devices recorded voices of
sect members discussing their preparations to burn their building.
But lawyers for the Branch Davidians challenged those assertions in their
motion and in reports from a fire investigation firm, a recording expert and
other forensic specialists.
"This is a story of a government agency run amok, and two guys, Jamar
and Rogers, who are apparently answerable to no one. They thought they
were the law," said Mike Caddell, lead lawyer for the sect. "The American
people should be angry because what we know now is how badly we've
been misled, how badly we've been lied to for seven years.
The Branch Davidians' pleadings and expert reports released Wednesday
The failure to obtain adequate firefighting equipment before launching a
tear gas assault violated a specific directive from the attorney general to
spare no expense or effort in ensuring "an adequate emergency response."
A senior FBI official recently acknowledged that Ms. Reno asked the
FBI to ensure that it could address fire threats at the compound. That
official, retired FBI Agent Danny O. Coulson, said the availability of
armored firefighting equipment was investigated, but it was never obtained.
The acting attorney general when the standoff began later told FBI
officials that bringing in fire trucks might have been risky or impractical, but
forest-fire fighting equipment might have been used. "Think about fire next
time," the official, Stuart Gerson told FBI investigators, FBI records
Mr. Kennedy stated that suitable fire equipment was available, including
water cannons used for riot control, armored firefighting vehicles deployed
by the city of Washington and helicopter-borne water slings used to fight
Mr. Coulson, who helped supervise the Waco siege from FBI
headquarters, said the decision to send tanks into the building, which
experts on both sides said contributed to the rapid spread of the fire, was
inconsistent with the plan Ms. Reno approved.
Mr. Kennedy's report concluded that the government's investigation,
which ruled that Branch Davidians set the compound fire, was "fatally
flawed." He noted it failed to follow national standards, overlooked the
government's possible role in the blaze and hinged on evidence "that has
never been used in such fire investigations before or since."
That evidence, an infrared videotape shot by an FBI airplane above the
compound on April 19, does not prove "with any certainty the origin of the
Mr. Kennedy, whose past cases include the Las Vegas MGM Hotel
fire, the DuPont Plaza Hotel fire in Puerto Rico and the Philadelphia
MOVE standoff fire, wrote that the government's bulldozing of the crime
scene "made it impossible to answer the questions left open by the
government's inadequate fire investigation."
"When analyzed according to accepted industry standards of fire
investigation, the origin of this fire must be listed as 'undetermined,' and the
responsibility for this fire must be listed as 'undetermined,' " Mr. Kennedy
The Branch Davidians' court filing contended that post-fire interviews
with FBI hostage rescue team members suggests that tear gas rounds two
agents fired into the compound kitchen "accidentally triggered a fire."
A federal prosecutor's notes stated that one agent reported firing "three
rounds into kitchen & at same time less than 30 sec later he saw white
That agent fired military pyrotechnic tear gas rounds at a bunker near the
compound in the first hours of the gas assault.
Ms. Reno banned the use of any devices capable of sparking fires that
Mr. Kennedy's report disputed conclusions of government investigators
that the propellant FBI tanks used to spray in gas was nonflammable and
incapable of contributing to the fire.
Mr. Kennedy said the propellant, methylene chloride, is highly flammable in
vapor or mist form. He added, "there are many documented cases of fires
and burn injuries fueled by methylene chloride vapors."
He noted that propellant vapors "could significantly contribute fuel to the
rapidly propagating flash fires reported by surviving Branch Davidians"
A former Secret Service forensic recording specialist hired by the sect to
analyze FBI audio and videotapes said he had found broad evidence of
tampering and erasures in crucial government recordings.
The expert, Steve Cain, stated that tapes of the surveillance recordings
from April 19 that Justice lawyers described as originals to the Waco
federal court all appeared to be copies.
He said those April 19 recordings, which included what prosecutors said
Those and other anomalies led Mr. Cain to conclude that the tapes'
"reliability, authenticity and originality are in serious question and indicate
that portions of these recordings have been tampered with."
Mr. Cain said the government's April 19 infrared recordings appear to
have been altered, and the videos from the six hours before the fire
contained evidence "that they have been probably edited and possibly
That evidence includes the erasure of the audio track from the infrared tape
shot in the crucial hour before the fire, he said.
That tape includes repeated flashes on the back side of the compound that
lawyers and experts for the sect have alleged were caused by government
gunfire. Government lawyers have denied that their agents fired a single
shot on April 19.
The government's videotape from that period contains electronic signals
suggesting the erasure all of the discussions between personnel in the plane
that carried the camera and cockpit broadcasts of radio traffic between
FBI agents on the ground, Mr. Cain's report stated.
Although government lawyers told Judge Smith that tape was an original,
Mr. Cain wrote, it appears to be a copy, "and therefore does not
constitute reliable evidence."
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