WASHINGTON -- 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 yesterday.
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," he said.
Mr. 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, he said.
Dismissing as impossible one of the most persistent conspiracy theories surrounding the federal raid and standoff, he said that evidence shows that the fires were not touched off by FBI tanks, or 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, a New York Democrat.
"We know from the evidence . . . that the fire was lit by [Davidian sect leader] David Koresh."
Theories of a government conspiracies -- from a cover-up of government mistakes to a deliberate effort to kill the Davidians -- shadow the House inquiry. Hearing Co-Chairman Rep. Bill McCollum, a Florida Republican, has said that he wants the 10 days of hearings to answer lingering questions about the Waco affair.
But another House Republican suggested that some of his GOP colleagues appear more interested in making partisan points than in determining the truth.
Republican Rep. Jim Ross Lightfoot of 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.
Yesterday's testimony was aimed at one of the most extreme conspiracy theories: that the tanks used by the FBI to punch holes in the compound and insert tear gas were actually 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 Mr. Sherrow said that 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 Mr. Quintere on the official Waco arson investigation, agreed that the fire was set.
Mr. Schumer also pointed anew to tape recordings made from secret, eavesdropping microphones inside the compound the morning of the fire. He said they were "proof positive" that Davidians were preparing to set fire to the compound.
The tapes record people saying things like:
* "You got to put the fuel in there, too; got to put the fuel in there."
* "So we only light them as soon as they tell me 'last chance,' right?"
Also yesterday, 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 that he informed the White House counsel's office about the impending use of tear gas but that he never discussed it with the president until after the raid.
Mr. Hubbell said Attorney General Janet Reno did tell Mr. Clinton about the plan to use 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.
Ms. Reno, who is scheduled to testify Tuesday, accepted responsibility for the botched siege at the time, and again this week.