EVER SINCE the conflagration that consumed the Branch Davidians at Waco, anti-government conspiracy theorists and more sober critics of federal law enforcement have been darkly asking who sparked the fire. It is, and always has been, the wrong question.
The right question is this: Why did approximately 80 people die in a building that offered easy egress, in a fire that offered ample time for escape? That question is far more difficult to dismiss, and the answer to it appears to be hauntingly tragic: Though FBI agents most likely did not spark the inferno, they could very well share in the responsibility for at least some of the deaths.
That was the conclusion of a 1995 study by Failure Analysis Associates Inc., a Menlo Park, Calif., accident investigation firm whose client list includes the Department of Defense, General Motors, Ford Motor Co., General Electric and International Paper. As a joint House subcommittee was preparing Waco hearings in 1995, the National Rifle Association hired Failure Analysis to construct a computer simulation and a detailed study of the Davidians' final hours.
Before they saw the light of day, however, the mock-up and the study were consumed in the politics of the day. Democrats sought to block their admission to the hearings, charging that the NRA was trying to poison the proceedings. Republicans decided it wasn't worth the fight; besides, they had their own witnesses. And conspiracy theorists let the report slide from view. After all, the report's authors had dismissed the guts of the conspiracy theorists' claims: that the FBI sparked the blaze with flame throwers, or that, at the very least, the fire was ignited because of intense concentrations of methylene chloride, a potentially flammable solvent used to turn powdered, military CS chemicals into a potent tear gas.
With no champions, the Failure Analysis study was deep-sixed. But its conclusions cannot be so easily ignored.
Just before noon on April 19, 1993, federal agents mounted the last of four assaults on the Branch Davidian compound. The thrust was aimed at a bunker sheltering 34 Davidians, most of them women and children. A modified M60 tank emptied two 30-gram canisters of CS tear gas into the room. Failure Analysis determined that CS concentrations in the next minutes reached 90 milligrams per cubic meter -- nine times the level that the military recommends for subduing battle-ready enemy troops. But these were not trained soldiers; they were largely women and children, shielding their faces with damp towels and rags.
Minutes later, at 12:07 p.m., then at 12:08, and then at 12:09, three fires ignited in three separate parts of the compound. The timing and the locations back up the FBI's contention that Davidian leaders sparked the blazes in a suicidal rush. It's highly unlikely that FBI agents could have lighted those fires in those widely separated locations within 123 seconds.
The flashes of light caught on an aerial government videotape as one of the tanks pulled away from the complex were reflections from insulation material that had fallen on the vehicle, Failure Analysis concluded, not the blast of a flamethrower, as government critics claim.
Even top GOP aides question whether the staccato flashes of light that appear on videotape are the machine-gun fire that conspiracy theorists see.
Indeed, in their retreat, the FBI tanks appear to run over spots where the phantom gunmen allegedly were perched. And methylene chloride concentrations, though significant, did not approach the level needed to spontaneously combust, as some critics have postulated.
But the question remains: Why did only nine Davidians survive out of at least 85 in the building?
The fire moved quickly, driven by sustained winds of 24 miles per hour, whipping through gaping holes punched into the structure by FBI tanks. But the same holes that helped stoke the fire should have offered easy exits, Failure Analysis noted. FBI agents say the Davidians stayed because they chose to die; the ones who tried to escape were shot.
Greg Haussmann, Failure Analysis' principal engineer in thermal sciences and a lead author of the Waco study, is not buying that explanation. Of the 76 bodies that were recovered, only 18 had gunshot wounds. It is hard to believe the rest let themselves fry, he says.
"Fire is a very visceral thing. I don't care how dedicated or crazy you are, you cannot let yourself burn alive," he says.
Apparently, those people were physically unable to escape. But why?
The answer to that riddle could well be the gas, especially for the 34 victims who died in the bunker. The room's only door was a blanket covering the opening. They were not physically trapped. Others might have been unconscious when the fire roared through the complex. Still others might have been too weakened or too dazed to flee.
"Escape from the bunker was difficult, if not impossible, due to the high CS gas levels prior to the fire," Haussmann concluded in a 1998 paper for the American Society for Testing and Materials.
The FBI could not have known that just minutes after its fourth assault, fires would ignite the compound. Six hours of tear gas strikes had failed to flush the Davidians out or to force their surrender. Agents must have been convinced that they would have to incapacitate their opponents with massive doses of gas, then move in for the arrest.
But if Failure Analysis is correct, the results of that decision were disastrous. The conclusion reached by the firm is one that nobody wants to hear -- not the conspiracy theorists, not the FBI, not the Justice Department. It appears that the actions of Branch Davidian leaders resulted in their deaths and the deaths of their followers; the killers were not the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms or the Delta Force or the National Security Council. And, the murder-suicide succeeded so spectacularly only with the unwitting help of the federal government.
Jonathan Weisman is The Sun's White House correspondent.