The Wind at Mt. Carmel

The Wind at Mt. Carmel

I don’t know why I had to go there, but I had to go there. I had to see Mt. Carmel, the site of the Branch Davidian compound where 80 or more people died in a botched raid by the ATF and FBI. We were traveling down to Austin to visit my mother and our route took us through Waco. Mt. Carmel isn’t actually in Waco; it’s a few miles to the east of town. There are no signs which might direct tourists to the place. You have to know where you’re going. I’m sure the town of Waco would be more than happy to forget that Mt. Carmel ever existed, and to escape the linkage of their town’s name with tragedy. It won’t happen anytime soon.

It was a sunny May morning in Texas. The temperature was already climbing into the nineties. The sky was clear blue and the land looked lush and fertile. Golden rolls of hay sat in green fields of grass. Lush young corn stood in rows. This is good farmland, not the postcard cliché of desert so often associated with Texas. My son, Alex drove the car and I followed the map, navigating us into one of the darkest moments in American history.

My anxiety began to rise as we neared the place. Would the gate be locked? Would someone come out and run us off as a couple of sick vultures come to poke around in the bones of the dead cult? What would be waiting for us there? As it turned out, the only things there to meet us were the wind and our own dark visions.

We drove right to the site. I’m pretty good with maps. I remember thinking that I could have found it without a map – just follow my intuition. I grew up on little Texas roads like that. The gate was open. We drove in slowly. There’s a tree in the middle of the gravel road with a stack of granite stones, each with the name of a slain Davidian, stacked on either side of the tree. A little office building stands to the right of the road and double-wide a little further in. We looked at the windows and waited for someone to flag us down or come out to ask us our business. No one did.

They have built a little church there, more or less in the center of where the compound stood. We drove up to the church and stopped. I opened the car door and put my right foot out, and suddenly a strange apprehension hit me: I was about to put my foot on hallowed ground, un-insulated by the shiny Nissan Maxima. It was a weird sensation. I put my foot on the ground. Nothing particularly remarkable happened except for the sense of reverence that swept over me.

We immediately began to walk, simply walk, and look at the ground, this earth where so much happened. From the church, the first remnant of the compound you see is the swimming pool. It still has water in it, but it’s rainwater, green like any natural pond with bulrushes growing in it. In the southwest corner of the pool is a pile of concrete rubble pushed into the pool by FBI bulldozers eager to cover up the evidence of what happened there.

I would like to say, “I don’t have a dog in this fight.” I’m no fan of renegade federal police units with murderous intentions, but on the other hand, I don’t care much for apocalyptic cults with kinky sex practices. I didn’t like the Clinton administration under which the attack occurred and I didn’t like the Bush administration before it, under which the action was initiated. I think Koresh was a sexual deviant with messianic delusions. There aren’t many good guys to be found in all of this, except perhaps the Texas Rangers. But, I do have a dog in this fight, and it’s the same dog that every American has. We have a right to be secure in our homes and personal effects. We have a right to worship as we see fit. We have a right to a fair trial. We have a right to not be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. We have a right to live free of the mind control of self-appointed messiahs. It has been 15 years since the flames consumed Mt. Carmel and these things are still unsettled. We have a dog in this fight.

The Swimming Pool at Mt. Carmel

Just after noon on April 19, 1993, a friend of mine called and said, “Turn on your TV.” I did and watched with millions of others as the Mt. Carmel complex burned to the ground, and only one survivor, Clive Doyle, was seen coming out of the building. The attack fueled the most intense anti-government sentiment in this country since the Vietnam War. Two years later, the Murrow Building in Oklahoma City was bombed in retaliation for the Mt. Carmel massacre. The litigation and investigations went on for years. “Remember Waco” became the battle cry of the “militia movement.” Even to this day, what actually happened and on whom the blame falls remains in dispute. Clarity has never really been reached.

Now, I was standing on this hallowed ground with nothing but the wind to talk to me about what happened there. I had bought a white straw cowboy hat to keep the sun off my head. The wind would suddenly gust up and whip the hat off of my head as if to say, “Take your hat off in this place.” The sun was hot and I put it back on.

The basement of the Branch Davidian compound 250 I don’t know how much time passed before I remembered the cameras. This trip was about pictures. What I saw, I shot. I went back to the car and fetched the Lowepro two-camera backpack. It carried the space-age Nikon D70s digital SLR and the 1980-vintage Nikon F3 35mm. I carried the backpack to the edge of the swimming pool and unzipped the main compartment. The wind gusted up and threw the cover back. “Photograph this place,” the wind said. I pulled out both cameras and shot a few quick frames of the pool and “the underground bunker” before I gave the digital to Alex. I went to work with the F3 shooting color slides.

Fifteen years have passed since tanks and choppers roared across this land. Nature, in its way, has covered the scars with grass and pink and white flowers. A memorial grove of fruit trees stands to the south of the compound site. The Davidians have built a plain little church approximately where the tower and “the concrete room” once stood.

anthill2 Alex first noticed the ant hills. The top of the soil is white, perhaps from some chemical leeching from the ground. But when the ants bring up soil as they build their ant hills, the earth they bring up is distinctly ash gray. The FBI tried to bury what happened here with their bulldozers but the ants won’t allow it to remain buried. They bring the ash to the surface. It is the ash of a community, of a building, and perhaps it is the ash of human bodies incinerated here.

When you come to this place, you feel powerful things. I have seen so many film clips of the assault that I could visualize the building, where the tanks were, the desperate gun battle, and the fire. Strong emotion sweeps over you like the Texas wind. I certainly don’t approve of Timothy McVeigh’s action, but standing on this blood-soaked ground I could understand his rage. David Koresh may have been a bastard – I don’t know, but I do know that 80-some people didn’t deserve to die like this.

I walked the foundation line of the building that once stood here. It is still visible. Finally, we shot all the pictures we could think of and felt the feelings that the place evokes. It was time to go. Cameras again packed into their case, we fired up the little car and drove away. A part of me is still there, haunted by the memory, unable to let go of “the worst day in the history of American law enforcement.”

The road at Mt. Carmel where the attack was launched640

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