Activities of Federal Law Enforcement Agencies Toward the Branch Davidians/Section 8

VIII. The FireEdit

At 12:07 p.m., Central Standard Time, more than 6 hours after the FBI began to implement the plan to end the standoff, fire was detected inside the Branch Davidian residence. Within a period of 2 minutes, two additional fires were detected in two other parts of the structure. In less than 8 minutes the fire had spread throughout the structure. By the end of the afternoon, the structure was completely destroyed.

The subcommittees received testimony from the leader of a team of fire experts called together by the Texas Rangers to investigate the origins of the fire,[1] a fire expert retained by the Justice Department to join with the team assembled by the Texas Rangers,[2] and an independent arson investigator.

During the testimony of these witnesses, the subcommittees also reviewed videotape recordings of the development and spread of the fire. Included in this review was a videotape using "forward looking infrared" (FLIR) technology, which was taken from an FBI observation plane circling the Branch Davidian residence throughout the morning and afternoon of April 19. The FLIR type of video, also called a Thermal Imaging System, is a type of video photography which images thermal heat sources. Because of its sensitivity to changes in the quantity of heat given off by an object the FLIR videotape showed the beginning of the fires within the Branch Davidian residence prior to the point at which was the flames were visible to persons on the outside of the structure. Time lapse indicators on the video tape recordings were used by the witnesses to establish the times at which each fire within the Branch Davidian residence began.

a. summary of the development of the fireEdit

During the hearings, James Quintiere, professor of Fire Protection Engineering at the University of Maryland and one of two fire experts retained by the Justice Department to join the fire review team assembled by the Texas Rangers, used the FLIR video tape to demonstrate the development of the fire on April 19. Dr. Quintiere's responsibilities as a part of the Review Team were to analyze the development of the fire and draw interpretations and conclusions from that analysis.[3] In addition to reviewing the FLIR video, the fire investigation team reviewed television coverage of the fire by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., which was also time dated, and television coverage of the fire by a local Waco television station. The team also reviewed aerial photographs and other materials. During his testimony to the subcommittees, Dr. Quintiere played a video tape that simultaneously played each of the three video tapes of the fire synchronized to the same time.

The videotape demonstration showed that the first fire began at 12:07:42 p.m. As part of his testimony to the subcommittees, Dr. Quintiere narrated the videotape demonstration. As the first fire developed, Dr. Quintiere testified,

If you look at this point here, you will see this window begin to turn slightly grayish, it does right now. Nine seconds later the window on the opposite side right here is going to also show an illumination which is due to this temperature rise, and in my opinion that is due to smoke being transported from the fire started at one end of the room to the other end of the room. . . . The room was a second floor room approximately 16 x 11 in dimensions and about 8 feet high, which is presumed to have been a bedroom. One minute later the second fire begins on the first floor at the rear of the dining room.[4]

Dr. Quintiere then described the development of the second fire.

We are looking at the development of the fire in that bedroom area, the second floor right tower. What we are going to see here at 12:09:42, we will see an event known to people who investigate and study fire. That event is called flashover, and that is a point when we have a transition in this fire in which the fire goes from a discrete object that you could discern very readily burning in a room such as this to a point where flames now fill the room, and that transition can occur in seconds. It is known as flashover. Before that time the room might be survivable.
After that time it is definitely not, and now the fire is a threat to spreading to other rooms.[5]

Finally, Dr. Quintiere described the inception of the third fire, which occurred on the first floor in the chapel area.[6] He also noted that 38 seconds later there emerged hot gases at a point 45 feet away from the point where the third fire began. He testified that this could have been a separately set, fourth fire, but that the development of this fire was consistent with someone placing a trail of gasoline or other liquid fuel between those two points and allowing the third fire to spread over that trail.[7]

As Dr. Quintiere summarized his conclusions:

If we can just pause at this point, you can see the fire here, the first fire. A minute later, a fire began in the dining room area, and a minute after that a fire began in this chapel. It has not burned through the roof yet, but the ignition in the debris area because of the wind has now propagated significantly over that debris area. These are three distinct fires.
From this information I can conclude that these three fires that occurred nearly 1 minute apart were intentionally set from within the compound. Also, you have the time periods involved and the very discrete different locations. None of these three fires could have caused any of the others because their growth rates would not provide sufficient heating to cause such remote ignitions.[8]

The experts testified that they believed the fires were intentionally set by Branch Davidian members in order to destroy the structure.[9] Supporting this conclusion is that fact that the fire review team found that a number of accelerants were present in the structure and on the clothing of some of the surviving Davidians, including gasoline, kerosene, Coleman fuel, and other accelerants.[10] As Dr. Quintiere testified,

Although normal furnishings and interior construction characteristics would provide a means for fire propagation, the more than usual rapid spread of these fires, especially in the dining room and the chapel areas, indicates to me that some form of accelerant was used to encourage to the rapid spread of these fires.[11]

b. other theories concerning the development of the fireEdit

1. Whether the methylene chloride in the CS riot control agent used by the FBI caused the fireEdit

One of the theories forwarded to the subcommittees concerning the origin of the fire is that methylene chloride, a chemical used as a dispersant to carry the CS riot control agent injected into the Branch Davidian residence, may have ignited and started the fire. During the hearings Dr. Quintiere testified that it was his opinion that the methylene chloride in the CS agent neither caused nor contributed to the spread of the fire.

According to Dr. Quintiere, methylene chloride, when a vapor in air, is flammable at ambient air levels of 12 percent or greater.[12] This conclusion is supported by information provided by the manufacturers of methylene chloride.[13] The subcommittees review of the evidence presented indicates that the levels of methylene chloride present in the residence on April 19 was far below this concentration.[14] Additionally, a spark, flame, or other source of heat is necessary for methylene chloride to ignite and a fireball-like event would have resulted. As Dr. Quintiere testified,

In other words, anything above 12 percent to approximately 20 percent, it would be in the flammable range, and if we had a spark or a small match and if we had conditions like that, we would have a fire propagating through the atmosphere much like a fireball. There was no observation like that made for this fire.[15]

The only fireball which did occur took place well after the fires had engulfed the building, and was most likely due to the explosion of a canister of propane gas.[16] Accordingly, because there was no explosion prior to the beginning of the fire, there is no evidence that methylene chloride vapor present in the air caused the outbreak of the fire.

Dr. Quintiere also noted that methylene chloride is generally in a liquid state and that as the methylene chloride vapor condensed and fell in droplets to the floor of the structure after the CS was inserted the methylene chloride generally would have evaporated. In some instances, however, the chemical could have collected in a puddle. He testified that such a puddle would have been difficult to ignite due to the presence of chlorine in the chemical. He testified that "in some sense [methylene chloride] acts like an inhibitor." [17] He further testified that he conducted experiments using methylene chloride as a "wetting" agent by depositing it on wood, paper, and other flammable objects that might have been found in the structure in an effort to determine whether the methylene chloride might have burned along with these items. As a result of these experiments, he concluded "that the methylene chloride had no enhancement effect on the fires spread over the room furnishings and other things that burned in the compound." [18]

2. Whether the irritant chemical in the CS riot control agent used by the FBI caused or contributed to the spread of the fireEdit

At the hearings Dr. Quintiere testified that he had reviewed the literature concerning the ignition point of the chemical irritant in CS agent and noted that the temperature at which that chemical would ignite was comparable "to what we would find from most fuels around us." [19] Based upon his review of the literature, Dr. Quintiere testified that it was his opinion that the CS powder that is an active irritant in the riot control agent did not enhance the spread of the fire.[20]

3. Whether the combat engineering vehicles used by the FBI on April 19 started the fireEdit

Some theories concerning the origin of the fire involve an explanation that one of the combat engineering vehicles used by the FBI to inject CS chemical agent and to demolish portions of the Branch Davidian residence may have actually caused the fire, either intentionally or unintentionally.

At one point in the video record of the operation on April 19, a combat engineering vehicle is seen driving into a portion of the residence. The first fire begins in that same location shortly thereafter. Some have suggested that the CEV might have overturned a lighted kerosene lantern inside the residence, causing the fire to begin. The fire that begins in that area, however, is not discernable in the FLIR video until 1[21] During the hearings, Dr. Quintiere was questioned on the significance of this fact.

Mr. Schiff: Well, if there were lanterns in use and if you had, either through vibrations of tanks hitting walls or through a number of people, panicking inside at what they might have perceived was an assault, notwithstanding the FBI broadcast going to them, couldn't either or both of those factors easily overturned lanterns inside the compound?
Dr. Quintiere: Well, the only evidence of a tank being in the vicinity of one of the fires is the first fire, and that tank has not left 1\1/2\ minutes after the fire has begun. If that tank knocked over a lantern and the lantern were lit, we would have seen it in that FLIR video because it would have been sensitive enough to see that. If the tank had spilled a lantern and there was no flame there to ignite it, that's possible, but somebody would have to come in and put a flame in that.[22]

Some citizens have contacted the subcommittees to suggest that the combat engineering vehicles used by the FBI at Waco carried flame throwing devices which were used to intentionally set the fires inside the Branch Davidian residence. During the hearings, the fire experts were questioned about this theory.

Mr. Schumer: Another theory we have heard mentioned is that a flame thrower from the tanks started the fire. Now as I understand it, we would have to have seen on the FLIR a hot streak going from the tank to the building for that to happen.
Dr. Quintiere: Absolutely.
Mr. Schumer: And we did not; is that correct?
Dr. Quintiere: Absolutely.
Mr. Schumer: So you are saying a flame thrower from the tanks starting the fire--is that consistent--is that theory consistent with what we saw on the tape?
Dr. Quintiere: No, indeed. There was no such thing as a flame thrower on those vehicles.[23]

On another day of the hearings, a Defense Department witness testified that all of the military vehicles loaned by the Defense Department to the Department of Justice and used at Waco were unarmed.[24] Additionally, the subcommittees' interviews with other persons present at the Branch Davidian residence on April 19 confirms that none of these vehicles was armed.

c. whether the davidians could have left their residence after the fire beganEdit

Throughout the morning of April 19, none of the Davidians left their residence. After the fire broke out, however, nine persons left the building.[25] This indicates that at least some opportunity existed for the Davidians to safely leave the structure had they wanted to do so. One of those who escaped the fire left the residence almost 21 minutes after the outbreak of the first fire.[26] Clearly, some means of escape from the residence existed for a significant period of time after the fire broke out.

An important question, however, is whether the Davidians might have been overcome by smoke and prevented from leaving the residence. The autopsies of the Davidians indicate that deaths from smoke inhalation or asphyxiation from carbon monoxide poisoning accounted for only half of the Davidians who died in the residence. The other causes of death were gunshot wounds, burns, or other trauma. Thus, even after the fires began to consume the structure, at least half of the Davidians were not so affected by the smoke and fumes from the fire that they were physically unable to leave the structure.

Additionally, the location of the bodies of the Davidians indicates that few of the Davidians actually attempted to escape the building. Many of the bodies were huddled together in locations in the center of the building.[27] Few of the bodies were located at points of exit from the building, and autopsies indicates that the cause of death of several of the bodies at exit points were self-inflicted gunshot wounds or gunshots from very close range.

At the hearings before the subcommittees, Dr. Quintiere testified as to his opinion as to whether the Davidians could have left the structure. He testified,

I've estimated . . . that the occupants would have had sufficient warning in no doubt [sic] that the fire occurred, and this would have enabled them to escape for up to five minutes from the start of that first fire or perhaps as many as 20 minutes in some protected areas of the building.
So between and interval of five minutes after the fire started and maybe as much as 20 minutes, a person could have escaped from some parts of the building.[28]

Paul Gray, Assistant Chief of the Houston Fire Department and leader of the fire review team assembled by the Texas Rangers, agreed with this opinion, "I would take an educated guess of about 20 to 22 minutes from the inception of the fire, from the first ignition that there may have been some viable conditions inside the building." [29] As the report of the team led by Gray summarized,

[A] great many of the occupants could have escaped to the outside of the compound even as the building burned. . . . [C]onsidering the observable means of exit available, we must assume that many of the occupants were either denied escape from within or refused to leave until escape was not an option.[30]

In light of this evidence, the subcommittees conclude that there was a period of time after the fires began within which the Davidians could have escaped the residence. The evidence presented to the subcommittees indicates that the Davidians did not attempt to leave the building during the fire. In light of the Davidians' religious beliefs that fire would play a part in the end of their worldly lives, the subcommittees conclude that most of the Davidians either did not attempt to leave their residence during the fire or were prevented from escaping by other Davidians. Had they made such an attempt and not been hindered in the attempt, however, conditions were such that for sufficient period of time after the fires broke out many of the Davidians could have survived.

d. the fbi's planning for the fireEdit

According to the Justice Department Report, at a meeting in early April, one of the government attorneys raised the possibility of fire at the compound and suggested to the FBI that "fire fighting equipment be placed on standby on the scene." [31] Additionally, the Medical Annex to the operations plan for April 19, which listed the locations of "primary" and "secondary" hospitals in the area noted that local hospitals should not be used to treat major burns but that one of the secondary hospitals was "primary for major burns."

According to the Justice Department Report, the FBI decided to not have fire fighting equipment at the scene "for fear that they would be fired upon by Koresh and his followers." [32] Yet shortly after the reports of fire, the FBI command post requested fire fighting assistance be requested. The first fire fighting vehicles arrived in the vicinity 20 minutes later and, at 12:41 p.m., approached the structure. In total, the fire crews did not reach the structure until 31 minutes after the fire had first been reported.[33] The report also asserts that Jeffrey Jamar, the FBI's on-scene commander at Waco, stated to Justice Department officials during the their internal investigation of the incident that "even if the fire fighters had arrived at the compound earlier he would not have permitted them to enter due to the great risk to their lives." [34]

The subcommittees do not dispute the Justice Department's position that at the outbreak of the fire it would have been dangerous for fire fighters to approach the structure. Yet, the subcommittees find it troubling that even though the government clearly believed there existed a strong possibility of fire, no provision was made for fire fighting units to be on hand, even as a precaution. If, as the Justice Department's Report implies, the government had decided in advance that it would not attempt to fight any fire that occurred (and thus did not make provision for fire fighting units to be present at the compound), it is difficult to understand why the FBI placed a call for fire fighting units to be summoned to the scene immediately upon the commencement of the fire.

e. findings concerning the fireEdit

  1. The evidence indicates that some of the Davidians intentionally set the fires inside the Davidian residence. While the evidence is not dispositive, the evidence presented to the subcommittees suggests that some of the Davidians set the fires that destroyed their residence. The evidence demonstrated that three distinct fires began in three separate parts of the Branch Davidian residence within a 2 minute period on April 19. Additionally, the fire review team found that a number of accelerants were present in the structure, including gasoline, kerosene, and Coleman fuel, and that in at least one instance these accelerants contributed to the spread of the fire in a manner that indicates an intention to spread the fire.
  2. The methylene chloride in the CS riot control agent used by the FBI did not cause the fire. There is no evidence that methylene chloride vapor in the air in the residence, present as the result of its use as a disbursant for the CS riot control agent, caused the outbreak of the fire. The evidence presented to the subcommittees indicated that for the methylene chloride to have burned some spark must have ignited the methylene chloride vapor and that a fireball would have resulted. Because no fireball was observed until well after the fire had become established, the subcommittees conclude that methylene chloride did not cause the fire.
  3. The subcommittees conclude that Federal law enforcement agents did not intentionally set the fire. The evidence before the subcommittees clearly demonstrates that no fire began at or near the time when any of the combat engineering vehicles used by the FBI came into contact with the structure. Had a flamethrower or similar device been installed on one of the CEV's and used to start the fire its use would have been observable in the infrared videotape of the fire. No such use is recorded on the that videotape. Accordingly, the subcommittees conclude that the FBI did not use any of the CEV's intentionally to cause the fire.
  4. The subcommittees conclude that Federal law enforcement agents did not unintentionally cause the fire. The evidence presented to the subcommittees suggests that it is highly unlikely that Federal law enforcement officials unintentionally caused the fires to occur. The evidence demonstrates that the fires broke out at points in time when no vehicle used by the FBI was in contact with the structure or had been in contact with the structure immediately prior to those points. Because this would have been the case had these vehicles inadvertently caused the fires to break out by disturbing flammable materials inside the Davidian residence, the subcommittees conclude that it is highly unlikely that the vehicles inadvertently caused the fires to occur.
  5. The FBI should have made better preparations to fight the fire. While it may have been too dangerous to fight the fire when it initially erupted, it remains unknown as to whether it might have been safe for fire fighters to approach the building at some point earlier than the half hour later when they were allowed access. While fire fighting efforts might not have extinguished the fire, they could have delayed the spread of the fire or provided additional safe means of escape for some of the Davidians. It also does not appear as though the FBI considered obtaining armored fire-fighting vehicles from the military. In any event, given the government's strong belief that a fire might take place, and its action in summoning fire fighting units to the scene, the subcommittees conclude that the FBI should have made better provision for the presence of fire fighting equipment as part of its overall plan to end the standoff.
  6. The Davidians could have escaped the residence even after the fire began. After the fire broke out on April 19, nine persons left the Davidian residence. This indicates that at least some opportunity existed for the Davidians to safely leave the structure had they wanted to do so. As one person left the structure 21 minutes after the outbreak of the first fire, some means of escape from the residence existed for a significant period of time after the fire broke out. The autopsies of the Davidians indicate that many of the Davidians were not so affected by the smoke and fumes from the fire that they were physically unable to leave the structure. Additionally, the location of the bodies of the Davidians indicates that few of the Davidians actually attempted to escape the building. In light of this evidence, the subcommittees conclude that there was a period of time after the fires began within which the Davidians could have escaped the residence.

  1. U.S. Dept. of Justice, Report to the Deputy Attorney General on the Events at Waco, Texas 329 (1993) [hereinafter Justice Department Report].
  2. These individuals visited the scene of the fire on April 22-24, 1993. Hearings Part 3 at 119 (statement of James Quintiere).
  3. Id.
  4. Hearings Part 3 at 135.
  5. Id. at 136.
  6. Id.
  7. Id. at 136-137.
  8. Id. at 138.
  9. Id. at 138, 191 ("I don't discount that the fires were started inside by the people inside.") (statement of Rick Sherrow).
  10. Id. at 166, 187-188 (statement of Paul Grey).
  11. Id. at 138.
  12. Id. at 140.
  13. Letter from Peter Voytek, executive director, Halogenated Solvents Industry Alliance, Inc. to Glenn R. Schmitt, counsel to the Subcommittee on Crime (July 25, 1995). See also generally Mallinckrodt, Inc., Material Data Safety Sheet 1 (1989); Dow Chemical, Inc., Material Data Safety Sheet 1 (1988).
  14. See section VII F of this report.
  15. Hearings Part 3 at 140.
  16. "[T]he explosion happened well after the building was totally destroyed. It was very unlikely that that explosion was anything other than a propane cylinder. . . . There was, in fact, a hundred pound propane cylinder with a piece of the top blown out about the size of a football exactly where that explosion occurred, and I have no doubt that that is what the big explosion is. . . ." Id. at 175-176 (statement of Paul Gray).
  17. Id. at 140.
  18. Id.
  19. Id.
  20. Id.
  21. Id. at 135 (statement of James Quintiere).
  22. Id. at 143.
  23. Id. at 144. See also Id. at 172 ("The flame-throwing tank absolutely did not happen.") (statement of Rick Sherrow).
  24. Id. at 314 (statement of Allen Holmes, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict).
  25. Justice Department Report at 298. Two of these persons, Clive Doyle and David Thibodeau testified before the subcommittees at the hearings.
  26. Hearings Part 3 at 139 (statement of James Quintiere).
  27. A chart indicating the location of the bodies found after the fire in the remains of residence is contained in the Appendix.
  28. Hearings Part 3 at 139.
  29. Id. at 183.
  30. Justice Department Report at 335.
  31. Id. at 302.
  32. Id.
  33. Id.
  34. Id.