WACO, Texas - A Branch Davidian survivor testified Tuesday that damage caused by FBI tanks blocked an exit from the sect's complex when it caught fire.
But the survivor, Misty Dawn Ferguson, said she was able to get out of the burning complex by jumping through a hole in a wall that a tank had created.
Ferguson lost all her fingers in the fire seven years ago, in which about 80 people died. She is one of the survivors who, along with the relatives of some of the victims, are seeking millions of dollars in damages on their claims that government actions were responsible for the injuries and loss of life.
In a calm voice, Ferguson offered some of the most dramatic testimony yet in the trial of the plaintiffs' wrongful death suit. She was 17 at the time of the government's siege on April 19, 1993.
Ferguson said she had begun living at the sect's Mount Carmel complex near Waco about two years earlier, after accompanying her mother, Rita Riddle, there. Riddle left the complex about midway during the 51-day siege; she testified earlier in the trial that she hadn't taken her daughter with her because she thought her daughter would be safer inside the complex.
While converted tanks driven by FBI agents pumped tear gas into the structure, Ferguson stayed in an upstairs bedroom that had once been occupied by her mother. She said she stayed in her mother's room until tanks began plowing into it, buckling the floor.
"It didn't cave the floor in completely but it did cave it in to where you couldn't stand to walk on it," she said. "It sounded like a bunch of wood cracking and popping, and of course there was the loud noise of the tanks. The building was shaking."
Wearing a gas mask, Ferguson sought refuge in a room across the hall. She said she saw a tear gas canister fired into the room.
"It looked like steam coming out of it," Ferguson said.
After about 20 minutes there, Ferguson "felt heat underneath my feet." She said that when she tried to get out through a hallway, she found her way blocked by damage from the tanks.
"It was the only way out," she said. "The floor was caved in and before I knew it, I was engulfed in smoke. I couldn't see anything at that point."
Ferguson said she got down close to the floor and crawled toward light at the opposite end of the hallway. In the process, her hands were burned.
"In one of the rooms there was a hole where a tank had come in and I jumped from the building there," Ferguson said.
The Davidians claim FBI commanders endangered lives by ordering the tanks to plow into the structure to deliver tear gas six hours into the assault. They say the maneuver violated Attorney General Janet Reno's orders that agents were to wait 48 hours before demolishing the complex.
The government contends the Davidians endangered themselves by refusing orders to surrender after a gunfight between sect members and agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The government defense is that the Davidians started the fire and that their leader, David Koresh, led the sect's members to their deaths in fulfillment of his apocalyptic teachings.
Ferguson said she was not one of the many wives that Koresh had claimed for himself and that she had never had sex with him. But she said that she knew other women who were "married" to Koresh. Ferguson also said she knew some men at the complex bought and sold weapons, but that she was not armed and had never been trained to handle a gun.
She said that on the day of the initial ATF raid, she did not see anyone firing. Ferguson's uncle, James Riddle, died during the last day of the siege, but her aunt, Ruth Riddle, survived.
At the end of Ferguson's testimony, one of the five jurors submitted a question asking why she had stayed after her mother left. Judge Smith refused to permit the question, because lawyers for both sides had agreed that the Davidians' reasons for staying in the complex would not be part of the trial.
In other developments Tuesday:
* Myra Slovak, an employee of a Czech company, testified that he offered an FBI agent in Florida the use of an armored firefighting tank to deal with events at Waco, but that the offer was not accepted. Testimony raised questions about whether the tank would have been effective and whether it was even in the United States at the time of the siege.
* Several former Davidians testified by deposition that they never heard Koresh advocate suicide and that the sect disapproved of suicide. They also said Koresh preached about the end of the world and that he considered all of the women in the complex to be his wives.
WACO - The youngest survivor of the Branch Davidian fire told jurors in afederal wrongful-death lawsuit Tuesday that extensive tank damage on the final day of the 1993 siege buckled upper floors, blocked stairways and nearly cut off her escape from the burning building.
"I tried to get out the hallway, but I couldn't go that way. . . . That was the only way out," testified 24-year-old Misty Ferguson, describing her final minutes in the smoke-filled, damaged building. "I didn't want to be burned."
Ms. Ferguson told jurors that she noticed her hands were badly burned after leaping from the second story of the building. She offered mute evidence of her injuries as she took the witness stand, raising a right arm to expose the stump of a hand with no fingers.
She also suffered severe facial burns and lost the fingers on her left hand in the fire that took the lives of 80 Branch Davidians on April 19, 1993.
Ms. Ferguson, a North Carolina resident who was 17 at the time of the fire, appeared as the final witness for plaintiffs represented by lead lawyer Michael Caddell.
Her account framed a five-day trial presentation that began with the testimony of her mother, Rita Riddle, who left the compound during the siege.
Speaking in a quiet voice, Ms. Ferguson testified that she noticed the fire "15 to 25 minutes" after a tank ripped up much of the second-story bedroom where she had been waiting out the FBI's tear-gas assault.
"The floor caved in. . . . You couldn't walk or stand on it," she said, adding that she moved away from the damage and soon noticed smoke in the building.
She said she ran down a hall hot from flames below and tried to head to a stairway, only to find it blocked by damage from the tanks.
Ms. Ferguson said she was blinded by smoke but finally escaped, following glimmers of light to a hole left by one of the tanks.
Mr. Caddell finished presenting his case Tuesday by interspersing deposition testimony from sect members about the sect's beliefs and lifestyle with depositions of FBI agents and employees in the final fiery hours of the Waco siege.
Notably absent from his final presentation were the FBI's two commanders in Waco, Jeffrey Jamar and Richard Rogers.
Mr. Caddell initially said he would call the overall Waco commander and the head of the FBI's hostage rescue team to testify about their actions and decisions during the final tank and tear-gas assault on the compound.
The compound fire broke out about six hours after the operation began and less than an hour after the two men ordered several tanks to drive deep into the wooden building.
The $675 million wrongful-death lawsuit alleges that FBI commanders violated a Washington-approved plan when they ordered the tanks to begin demolishing the building. Government lawyers deny that, saying sect members alone caused the tragedy by provoking a shootout at the start of the siege and then ending the 51-day standoff with the torching of their home.
Mr. Caddell said he decided to wait and see whether government attorneys will make good on promises in their opening statements to allow jurors to hear from the two men.
On Tuesday, he read jurors excerpts from other FBI officials' testimony, including statements from one agent that the tanks were sent deep into the building after officials learned that Mr. Koresh and his lieutenants were holed up in an inner concrete room.
FBI agent Lawrence Bonney said officials reached that conclusion in part because "the building was coming down around them at that point."
Mr. Caddell also read testimony from an FBI pilot who recalled telling colleagues shortly before the compound burned that the Branch Davidians would soon have no building left to hide in.
"I recall some remarks that . . . people were going to have to get out pretty soon," testified the pilot, FBI Agent Bruce Stofko.
One member of the FBI's hostage-rescue team who helped fire tear-gas rounds during the assault testified that he wouldn't have driven a tank into the building, because "we weren't going to drive the thing blindly into the building with people in there."
The agent, Rick Intellini, also recounted hearing another FBI agent tell congressional investigators last year that he saw smoke billow from the compound kitchen "less than 30 seconds" after firing tear gas there.
FBI agents have maintained that they used only nonburning tear gas inside the building, but Mr. Caddell has argued that they were known to be running out of nonburning gas canisters by the time those rounds were fired.
He has tried to suggest to jurors that the smoke was characteristic of the white smoke from burning military tear-gas grenades.
FBI officials admitted last year that they had fired at least two of the pyrotechnic gas grenades at an underground construction site near the compound.
Also among Mr. Caddell's final presentation were excerpts from the deposition of a Texas Ranger who found proof that at least one of the military rounds was photographed by crime-scene photographers after the siege.
The Ranger, Joey Gordon, acknowledged that the round later disappeared and was never logged into evidence records.
He said his inquiry also found that at least five pyrotechnic "flash-bang" grenades that were logged into evidence after being found in the compound wreckage were mislabeled as "silencers" by the FBI laboratory.
2nd plaintiffs' group
The trial shifted late Tuesday to testimony from a second group of plaintiffs represented by former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark.
That group that includes most of the sect members who survived the 51-day standoff and who continue to embrace the teachings of their late leader and self-proclaimed doomsday prophet, David Koresh.
Mr. Clark's first witness, Australian emigre Clive Doyle, is one of three sect members acquitted of federal criminal charges arising from the siege and the shootout that began it.
That gunbattle erupted on Feb. 28, 1993, as more than 70 agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms descended on the sect's rural compound to search for illegal weapons and arrest Mr. Koresh.
Four agents and six Branch Davidians died.
The lawsuit alleges that ATF agents fired indiscriminately and used excessive force, but government lawyers contend that the agents responded properly after being ambushed by the sect.
Mr. Doyle - like other siege and fire survivors - insisted that their group was strongly opposed to suicide and focused on Bible studies - not guns, violence or a coming war with outside authority.
Earlier Tuesday, Ms. Ferguson had recounted how she moved to Mount Carmel with her mother and gradually became interested in their intensive Bible studies and beliefs. Before and after her time at Mount Carmel, she said, she never regularly attended church.
She and other sect members said that the studies offered by Mr. Koresh did not include talk of guns and fighting the government. She prompted incredulity from government lawyers when she maintained that she said she never handled a gun or even saw one at Mount Carmel, even on the day of the shootout.
Authorities found more than 300 guns - including .50-caliber rifles and 48 illegally converted machine guns - in the compound after the fire.
Another adult sect member whose deposition was read to jurors acknowledged that the group was particularly interested in the sections of the Bible dealing with the apocalypse.
Australian Oliver Gyarfas, whose pregnant 17-year-old daughter, Aisha, died in the fire, said sect members considered Mr. Koresh a prophet who received "visions" about those sections of the Bible.
He acknowledged that Mr. Koresh's teachings led his daughter and other women to become his wives and bear his children.
But he said that Mr. Koresh never taught that the end of the world would come with tanks, fire or gunfire and that he never taught followers that FBI and ATF agents were to be fought as the biblical "Beast" from the book of Revelations.
Misty Ferguson raised her right hand Tuesday to take an oath to tell the truth and the sleeve on her dress fell to reveal more about the injuries she suffered on April 19, 1993 than words ever could.
She lost the fingers on both hands in the fire that destroyed Mount Carmel. The inferno led to the deaths of David Koresh and 75 followers and a $675 million wrongful-death lawsuit against the government that's in its second week.
Ferguson, girlish bangs hanging to her glasses, talked in a soft Southern accent about the fire. She was 17 years old and hiding in a back bedroom on the second floor of Mount Carmel when it started.
"I had come out into the hallway, and I felt heat underneath my feet," Ferguson, 24, testified.
She tried going down the hallway, but the stairs had been buckled by FBI tanks ripping into Mount Carmel to disperse tear gas, Ferguson told Houston attorney Mike Caddell, lead attorney for the plaintiffs.
"The floor was caved in," Ferguson said. "Before I knew it, I was engulfed in smoke."
Ferguson was the last witness called by Caddell and wife Cynthia Chapman, as they rested their case.
Former U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clark, representing longtime Davidians such as Clive Doyle and Sheila Martin, had just started presenting his case to U.S. District Judge Walter S. Smith Jr. and an advisory jury when court recessed. Houston attorney James Brannon, representing the estate of Koresh's legal children, will follow Clark.
After being enveloped in smoke at Mount Carmel, Ferguson dropped to the ground, she testified Tuesday.
"I seen a little bit of light down toward the other way," Ferguson said. "...At that point, there was a lot of crackling noise."
Ferguson said she crawled toward the light and found a gap in an outside wall.
"There was a hole toward the front side of the building where a tank had come in," Ferguson said. "I jumped from the building there."
Caddell asked Ferguson if she knew the extent of her injuries. Her 6-month-old son, Dylan, could be heard crying outside the courtroom.
"At that point, the only thing I knew that was burned was my hands," Ferguson testified. "They were already burnt.
Ferguson was one of three Davidians taken to Parkland Memorial Hospital's burn unit in Dallas. The other two, Marjorie Thomas and Clive Doyle, were also in court Tuesday. Ferguson was also burned on her face and body, requiring a long hospitalization and rehabilitation.
Caddell submitted a written deposition from Frederick Lanceley, an FBI negotiator at Mount Carmel, critical of the FBI's decision to aggressively insert tear gas into the building. Lanceley said he agreed with the assessment of Gary Noesner, who coordinated the negotiation team at Mount Carmel.
A 1993 government report of an interview with Noesner after the fire was then read.
"Noesner ... determined that no one asked the negotiators and behavioral scientists what the response would be if the tanks punched holes in the building," the report said. "Noesner sees this as a fundamental flaw in the implementation of the operation. Any negotiator would have told them that dismantling the building would provoke a violent response. ... He believes that is what triggered the starting of the fires and the shooting of the children."
Government co-counsel Michael Bradford then read an excerpt from Lanceley's deposition in which the former negotiator stated that he wasn't critical of the FBI agents on the Hostage Rescue Team.
"I was drinking coffee and eating donuts and they were out there lying in the grass, and I understood some of them even entered the burning building to pull some of those folks out," Lanceley said. "They risked their own lives to save lives and that's more than I did."
Ferguson began her testimony Tuesday with a description of Feb. 28, 1993, the day of the raid on Mount Carmel by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
"Some of the women, I can't remember who they were, said, 'They're coming. They're here,'" Ferguson testified. "Shortly after I heard the words, 'They're coming,' there was shooting."
Government co-counsel Marie Hagen had Ferguson recount her testimony since other Davidian women have testified they didn't know there was going to be a raid. Ferguson told Caddell that she didn't know either.
Caddell asked if Ferguson saw any Davidians carrying weapons.
"I was so close to the floor," Ferguson said. "I had my head buried. I didn't see anything."
Ferguson was accompanied to court by her mother, Rita Riddle, who testified last week. Riddle left Mount Carmel during the siege.
In other testimony, Caddell submitted a written deposition from Livingstone Fagan, serving a prison sentence on manslaughter and weapons charges. Fagan said the Davidians' boast after the ATF raid that they had weapons capable of blowing a tank into the air was an idle threat intended to keep the government from realizing "how vulnerable we were."
"We only stated that so they would think that," Fagan said. "As long as they thought that, we had a little grace."
Fagan also said he saw ATF agents on the roof of Mount Carmel during the raid and shot at them. One fell off the roof, but Fagan said he doesn't know if he shot him.
In a written statement submitted by Cynthia Chapman, ATF agent Jeffrey Pierce reported being in the back of Mount Carmel when he heard the first shots and "immediately assumed that some animals were being shot in the front of the compound."
Clive Doyle, Ramsey Clark's first witness, recalled running toward the front door of Mount Carmel upon hearing shots. He found Perry Jones wounded and on his hands and knees.
"Perry was screaming," Doyle testified. "He said that he had been shot while standing behind the front door. He said the bullets came through the door and hit him in the stomach."
Jones later died.
The trial resumes today with Doyle back on the witness stand.
Waco, FBI and the Branch Davidians: Updates
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