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A Survivor's Story
By Leon Whiteson
With Aviva Layton
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Twenty-five years ago, the FBI staged a deadly raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco. Texas. David Thibodeau survived to tell the story.
When he first met the man who called himself David Koresh, David Thibodeau was a drummer in a local a rock band. Though he had never been religious in the slightest, Thibodeau gradually became a follower and moved to the Branch Davidian compound in Waco. He remained there until April 19, 1993, when the compound was stormed and burned to the ground after a 51-day standoff with government authorities.
In this compelling account — now with an updated epilogue that revisits remaining survivors–Thibodeau explores why so many people came to believe that Koresh was divinely inspired. We meet the men, women, and children of Mt. Carmel. We get inside the day-to-day life of the community. We also understand Thibodeau’s brutally honest assessment of the United States government’s actions. The result is a memoir that reads like a thriller, with each page taking us closer to the eventual inferno.
This Could Be the Day That I Die
It is hell. Day and night booming speakers blast us with wild sounds—blaring sirens, shrieking seagulls, howling coyotes, wailing bagpipes, crying babies, the screams of strangled rabbits, crowing roosters, buzzing dental drills, off-the-hook telephone signals. The cacophony of speeding trains and hovering helicopters alternates with amplified recordings of Christmas carols, Islamic prayer calls, Buddhist chants, and repeated renderings of whiny Alice Cooper and Nancy Sinatra’s pounding, clunky lyric, “These Boots Were Made for Walking.” Through the night the glare of brilliant stadium lights turns our property into a giant fishbowl. The young children and babies in our care, most under eight years old, are terrified.
The dismal racket and the blinding lights are tortures invented by the small army of law enforcement officers armed with tanks, armored vehicles, and automatic weapons who’ve surrounded the complex we call Mount Carmel for the past seven weeks. These torments are intended to sap our wills and compel us to surrender to an authority that refuses to accept that we are a valid religious community with deeply held beliefs. All our attempts to explain our commitment to what we believe have been dismissed as mere “Bible babble.”
As the days drift by, we’ve begun to fear that, in their disregard for our faith and their frustration at our refusal to submit to naked force, the seven hundred or so agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), plus the officers of several state and local police forces besieging us, may be edging toward an action that will end up wiping our small community right off the map.
In here, we’re all hungry and exhausted. For fifty days we’ve existed on two military Meals Ready-to-Eat (MREs) per day. The prepackaged rations of spaghetti and meatballs or tuna casserole taste like mud when eaten cold, slime when warmed over our lanterns. I’ve lost thirty pounds during the siege. We have no heat or electricity and little water. We use buckets for toilets, and we freeze in the chilly winter prairie wind that rattles our broken windows and whistles through the building’s thin sheetrock walls.
Huddling in the cold inside Mount Carmel are sixty-two adults and twenty-one children. Originally, there were some 130 of us in here, but many left voluntarily during the long siege. Six of our people were shot to death when armed ATF agents stormed our property without warning on February 28. The agents had fired at us, and we fired back. Four of them died and sixteen were injured as we drove them off.
The people who chose to leave Mount Carmel after the ATF attack, and the parents who stayed in Mount Carmel but sent out some or all of their children, made an agonizing decision to trust the solemn word of the FBI that all would be treated with respect. The feds guaranteed that the children would be allowed to remain with their parents or be reunited with relatives waiting in Waco. But the feds promptly betrayed their word. They separated children from their parents, some of whom were arrested, and placed the kids in public care; they shackled the adults, even some of the elderly women, and threatened to indict them all for attempted murder. These broken promises and hostile actions on the part of the federal government certainly don’t inspire the rest of us to leave the fragile security of our collective home.
The ones who’ve stayed inside Mount Carmel are a core group of our leader David Koresh’s extended family, plus some others. My close friend, Julie Martinez, and her five children decided to remain after hearing how the FBI treated those who’d gone out. The rest of us who have elected to stick it out with David to the end are an international group of men and women of various ages and nationalities, including Americans, Mexicans, Australians, Canadians, British, and one Israeli.
We have no formal name for our community. If anyone asks, we just say we’re students of the Bible. “Branch Davidians,” the name by which we’ve become known to an amazed world, really belongs to the splinter group of Seventh-day Adventists who lived in the Waco area for fifty years or so before David Koresh arrived on the scene and reorganized Mount Carmel. We are not, as the FBI and the fevered media claim, a crazy “sect” or “cult” led by a man they’ve dubbed the “sinful Messiah”; rather we are a continuity in more than half a century of serious religious faith. We’ve long lived in peace with our neighbors. Above all, we have never threatened anyone.
It’s now 2:00 A.M. on a cold Monday morning, April 19, 1993. I stand guard at the window over the front door to our building. A blanket covers the window to keep out the scouring winds and the dazzle of the lights. Lifting a corner to peer out, I see the bulky silhouettes of a pair of M60 tanks. With their bulldozer scoops and thirty-foot-long booms, these “combat engineering vehicles,” as the feds call them, seem like prehistoric raptors in the dark, eager to chew our bones. Knowing that the function of their long snouts is to help the tanks snort tear gas into our home makes me shudder. My sense of dread is sharpened by glimpses of several Bradley Fighting Vehicles, small combat tanks, scurrying in the shadows beyond the glare.
In the interval of silence between one hi-amp speaker-blast and another, an owl hoots. It’s the first natural sound I’ve heard in weeks. Then I realize that the night birds are human. The agents besieging us are exchanging birdcalls, signaling one another in the night.
In these moments I’m all too aware of the vulnerability of the stark, spare structure we dub the “Anthill.”
A rambling two- and three-story complex cobbled together out of salvaged lumber and cheap siding, Mount Carmel sits on a naked, flat plain ten miles southeast of Waco. With unpainted walls and rooms without doors, the raw structure shudders whenever icy gusts sweep through.
The FBI knows how flammable our wood-framed building is. It knows we’ve stacked bales of hay against some of the outside walls to protect us against gunfire. It knows that we’ve used Coleman lanterns, kerosene, and propane for light and heat since they cut off our electricity. It is aware that we’re low on water, down to a couple of eight-ounce ladles per person per day. At one point an FBI negotiator asked us if we had fire extinguishers, adding jokingly, “Somebody ought to buy some fire insurance.”
A child cries somewhere in the dark bowels of the building. It’s one of the loneliest sounds I’ve ever heard. I think of my little stepdaughter, Serenity, sleeping beside her mother, Michele, in the women’s quarters on the second floor. Serenity and I are good pals; we love spending time together, chattering about everything under the sun. We’re both Aquarians, and this past February we celebrated our birthdays—her fourth, my twenty-fourth.
Alone at my post over the front door, I ask myself yet again: Can the authorities really intend to endanger the lives of so many women and children in a violent assault? Another signal from the hostile darkness seems to whisper back—Yes, we can.
Steve Schneider, David Koresh’s deputy, comes to check on me. “How’s it goin’?” he asks.
“Scary,” I reply in understatement.
“I have a feeling the feds will jump us tomorrow,” Steve mutters. “They’re making those weird birdcalls. And all day long we’ve been hearing snatches of conversation on the FBI radio wave band we’re monitoring. It’s hairy, Thibodeau. Stay sharp.” He shivers and walks away, leaving me even more nervous than before. I huddle by the window, peeking out from behind the blanket, ears cocked for the ominous owl calls.
This is a strange scene for me to be in. A rock drummer by trade, a kid from Bangor, Maine, from the same French-Canadian New England stock as Jack Kerouac, I’m no religious fanatic, just a dreamer looking for answers in a place called Waco. The two years I’ve been here have been tough, but they’ve tempered my body and my spirit. I’ve quietened my life, reduced my needs, made great leaps in my heart and mind. Being in Mount Carmel has given me a rare inner surety. Put simply, this hard place has made a man of me.
Is that a reason to kill me?
I ask this question of the air on this dark Monday morning, knowing it may be answered all too soon. A refrain from the old seventies Don McLean song, “American Pie,” repeats over and over in my head: This’ll be the day that I die.
Still, I can’t quite believe that the responsible officials and politicians in Washington will allow this atrocity to happen. After all, this isn’t Iraq or Somalia, Bosnia or Tiananmen Square. It’s the goddamm middle of Texas!
And a host of press photographers and TV cameras are watching us, even at a distance. Though the FBI has held the reporters a mile away from our place, and the agents have cut off our electricity, leaving us without TV, we know that the images of our long siege have been broadcast across the nation and around the world. True, the government spin doctors have put an evil slant on our character, casting us as child abusers, drug users, gun nuts, demonizing our community as a bunch of Bible-crazed loonies. They claim the women and children living here are hostages. This blatant deceit is a rotten strategy, and I have a stubbornly naive faith that the FBI will not be allowed to get away with it.
The FBI tanks fly white pennants slashed with red diagonals, reversed Dixie colors. We interpret these aggressive standards as the promise of a bloody end to our confrontation, a determination not to allow us to surrender peacefully. At one point during the siege we hung out a bedsheet banner: “RODNEY KING WE UNDERSTAND.”
A few nights back we gathered in the upstairs hallway where David Koresh lay on blankets, propped up against the wall. He wanted to talk to us about our situation, how it might come out. Once or twice I notice him wincing from the wound in his side, made by a bullet that struck him in the lower torso during the February onslaught. The shot passed right through him, but the lesion hasn’t healed, since he has never been allowed to get medical attention. The wound is still seeping, and he suffers spasms of intense pain and dizziness.
David’s a skinny, casual kind of guy, not charismatic or physically compelling. He’s of medium height, dressing mainly in rumpled jeans and sweatshirt, sometimes a black leather biker jacket. His curly brown hair is untidy, and his pale, dimpled face is framed with a scraggly beard. He seems fragile yet radiates a quiet kind of sincerity and strength. If the spirit moves him, his brown eyes sparkle, and his usually low-key voice vibrates with power. When we play music—him on guitar, me on drums, someone on bass—he really gets into it, jiving with the best.
“Any questions?” David asks us solemnly.
“Have we brought this Armageddon upon ourselves, in a spiritual way?” someone says.
David’s expression is hard to read. “If we die here it’s because our purpose in this life has been served,” he says quietly. “In that sense, the feds are instruments of fate.”
“You mean, our attackers are also our deliverers?” I query, startled.
“You could say that. But,” he adds with a wry grin, “that doesn’t mean we have to love ’em.”
Now, keeping my lonely vigil at the window as the dawn sky begins to lighten, I tell myself that, if our end comes, I’ll be ready. But I can’t say I’m eager for it. My skin crawls, and that refrain keeps nagging at my mind: This could be the day that I die.
Before six o’clock, just as dawn breaks, I’m awakened from a doze by the ringing of the one telephone the FBI has left us. It’s the line they’ve used in a series of surreal conversations, mainly with David and Steve Schneider, trying to coax us out. Now the sound is ghostly.
“I want to speak to Steve,” a rough voice says as I put the receiver to my ear.
“He’s asleep,” I reply curtly.
“We have to speak to Steve right now,” the voice insists.
Shivering, I stumble along the corridor to the room where Steve is sleeping. While I’m shaking him awake, my roommate, Jaime Castillo, appears. He looks alarmed. “Something’s going on,” he mumbles as we haul an irritable Steve to his feet. Looking out the window, we see a formation of the demolition tanks closing in on us in the cold, gray light. “Shit!” Steve exclaims.
Just then, the amplified speakers, which have fallen momentarily silent, start up again. A metallic voice shouts at us: “The siege is over. We’re going to put tear gas into the building. David and Steven, lead your people out of there!”
A pause. We stare at one another, stunned.
“This is not an assault,” the loud voice continues. “The tear gas is harmless. But it will make your environment uninhabitable. Eventually, it will soak into your food and clothing.” The tone of fake concern switches to an abrupt: “You are under arrest. Come out with your hands up!”
“Get your gas masks,” Steve orders. “Now!”
Gas masks had been issued to everyone at the start of the siege; they were part of a job lot we’d bought at a gun show when we were starting to buy and sell firearms to earn some income for the community. Until the siege began, we never imagined we’d end up needing them for our own protection.
Racing through the long building, I wake people up, alerting them to the attack, urging them to put on the masks. Startled from sleep, people bump into one another, and the kids whimper anxiously. One young woman, Jennifer Andrade, can’t locate her mask, so I hurry to find her one. Meanwhile, the loudspeakers continue their hectoring. “The siege is over,” brassy voices shout. “We will be entering the building. Come out with your hands up. Carry nothing. There will be no shooting.” One phrase is repeated over and over. “This is not an assault, this is not an assault.”
Not an assault? With helicopters buzzing our building like giant hornets sent to sting us to death? With tanks coming at us, their long trunks filled with tear gas, nosing the air?
Suddenly, a sickening, crashing sound reverberates through the entire structure, as if the building has been struck by a giant metal fist. My dazed ears make out the rumble of heavy engines and raw squeals from the tank tracks biting dirt. This heart-stopping racket crescendos as the steel claws of two tanks bite chunks from the flanks of the long dormitory block. Another punches a hole through the middle of the block, ripping out a section of wall and roof, shaking the place stem to stern.
In the shock and confusion I run up and down the second-floor corridor, checking to see if there are any women who haven’t yet taken shelter in the concrete walk-in cooler at the base of the residential tower. My heart’s pounding enough to jump right out my mouth. This can’t be happening! a voice shrieks in my head. But it is happening.
All at once I see a powdery cloud billowing into the building, and I hear the sinister hiss of tear gas. Windows shatter as small canisters, like miniature rockets, shoot through the glass and explode, adding fumes to those spewing from the nozzles attached to the tank booms. A hail of broken shards flies toward me as I hurry to the ground-floor chapel at the east end of the building, my brain hammering with worry for the children. About three days before the assault I tried to fit Serenity with a mask, tightening it to see if it worked, but it only made her cry. Since the masks are too big for the kids’ small heads, the women have prepared buckets of water to soak rags and towels to cover the children’s faces. I hope some of the women and children have taken shelter in the old school bus we buried underground at the west end of the property months ago, before the siege began. It was meant as a refuge against tornadoes, but now it might protect the little ones.
In the chapel I again find Jaime Castillo. Tears are streaming down his cheeks. His mask isn’t working properly and he begs me to fetch the spare one he keeps under his bed. Usually quiet and soft-spoken, Jaime’s close to screaming. I run down the corridor, and when I get to the room I find that the entire corner’s been torn out, leaving a gaping wound in the side of the building. Shaken by such a crude scene of destruction, I’m startled by the clear view to the world outside. Out there, military vehicles churn in mud under the overcast sky.
A strong wind blows into my face, and I’m tempted to remove my mask to take a deep gulp of clean air, to be a normal, breathing person again—if only for an instant. Wearing a gas mask makes you feel smothered, as if a hand is squeezing your face. Only the certainty that the air is poisonous keeps me from ripping it off.
Climbing over the piled debris of timber and sheetrock, I find Jaime’s mask. When I try to return with it to the chapel, however, the corridor is blocked. The tanks have pushed in the side of the building so far that the internal walls have collapsed. I manage to stumble around the mess and make my way toward the chapel. A moment after I get there I see the piano we had moved to reinforce the front door being shoved deep down the hallway by a tank, blocking the entryway.
People are sheltering in the chapel, which is now directly under attack. A tank batters the east wall, poking its snout through the gap its boom has opened. When it releases gas we move in a crowd to the far end of the room. From time to time I remove my mask to judge the quality of the air. Sometimes the gas cloud has dissipated, other times it instantly stings my eyes, forcing tears down my cheeks.
All this time the speakers are blaring: “Do not shoot at us or we will shoot at you. The siege is over. This is not an assault.” Then the voice challenges David directly: “Come out now, David. You’re the leader, come out now.” At any moment I expect agents to burst in, spraying bullets. Yet a strange calm fills the chapel, between the screeching tank strikes. It’s as if we’re in a bubble of silence amid the uproar—a silence punctuated by the sinister popping sounds of gas-filled rocket shells.
In a moment of curiosity, I examine an unexploded rocket that embedded into a wall. It’s the size of a soda can with tiny fins at one end, a devilish toy filled with poison but somehow touching, like a child’s plaything. But the skin-scarring blisters my Australian friend, Clive Doyle, shows me on his hands are no joke. “Burns like battery acid, mate,” he says, face screwed up in pain. So far my black leather jacket has protected me from such injuries.
(Later I learn that the FBI Bradleys projected in excess of four hundred explosive rocket rounds into our building, boosting the effect of the sprayed tear gas. Both methods of delivery use noxious CS gas; whereas the sprayed gas is suspended in nontoxic carbon dioxide, the CS in the rocket rounds is mixed at a concentration of one part in ten with deadlier methylene chloride, a petroleum derivative. Methylene chloride is an eye, skin, and respiratory tract irritant. It’s flammable when mixed with air and can become explosive in confined spaces. When it burns it produces hydrogen chloride and the poisonous gas phosgene, which crippled many soldiers during World War I.)
Along with the popping sounds, I make out the near-distant squeal of a tank turning on its tracks. This monstrous machine is getting set to come at us yet again, and the relentless grind of its engines rattles my bones.
Despite the uproar and confusion, people are sitting in the pews facing the raised stage, quietly reading their Bibles, half-listening to the crackle of a battery-powered transistor radio.
About 9:30 A.M., more than three hours into the assault, David comes to check on us. “Hold tight,” he says. “We’re trying to establish communication, maybe we can still work this out.” His hand is pressed against his wounded side and he holds himself awkwardly, but he’s amazingly calm, eyes sharp behind his glasses. Somehow he’s managed to summon the strength to overcome the injury and tour the battered building to bolster our courage. I truly fear for my life, yet David’s reassurance gives me hope that we can make a deal with the authorities for a safe surrender. One problem is that our contact with the FBI is cut off because Steve threw the phone out the window in outrage as soon as we were attacked. Apparently, a tank ran over the cord, severing our phone link with the agents.
In between another wave of poisonous gas and yet another, in the timeless bubble that holds those of us huddling in the chapel in suspension, my thoughts drift to my mother, Balenda Ganem. For the past month she’s been living in a Waco motel, unable to contact me. I know she must be scared, really scared. As I’m thinking of her, a wave of intense longing washes over me. I want to be a kid once more, cuddled in her arms, and I’m terrified I might never again get close to her comforting warmth.
My spirits rise when I listen to Ron Engelman’s radio show at 10:30 A.M., broadcast on station KGBS out of Dallas. Engelman, the one media source steadfastly sympathetic to our plight during the siege, is saying he can’t believe the U.S. government is actually attacking us with such violence. He implores us to come out, fearing we’ll all be killed if we don’t. But I can’t shake off the fear that if we do walk out we might be shot down like dogs.
A network news flash interrupts Engelman’s show—an update from Waco. “Up to this point no one has come out,” the announcer rattles off breathlessly. “The FBI claims that eighty to one hundred gunshots have been directed against its agents.”
This stuns me. It makes us seem as if we’re acting like the guys in the Alamo, making a suicidal last stand. My heart sinks, the last trace of hope drains from my body.
I can’t swear that some of us aren’t responding to the assault with firearms at the other end of the building, but I’ve heard no gunfire in the chapel or anywhere nearby. In my despair I begin to believe that we are truly doomed, that the FBI may be setting the American public up for a massacre, and the possibility that I really could die today hits me full-force.
The tank comes at us again, the gaseous nostrils at the tip of its boom poking blindly through the shattered wall. The machine sniffs air, searching, before spewing its foul stuff into our faces; I imagine it can actually smell our terror. We’re trapped here, debris blocks the exits. As the tank attacks, people scream and back away. There’s no way out and we cower wherever we can. I try to hide among a tall stack of amplifiers, squeezing into the middle of them, but when the tank crashes into the wall nearby I back away onto the stage.
By noon, the building is a tinderbox. A thick layer of methylene chloride dust deposited by the CS gas coats the walls, floors, and ceilings, mingling with kerosene and propane vapors from our spilled lanterns and crushed heaters. To make things worse, a brisk, thirty-knot Texas wind whips through the holes ripped in the building’s sides and roof. The whole place is primed like a potbellied stove with its damper flung open.
Suddenly, someone yells—Fire!
Frantically, I look around for an escape route. The gym beyond the chapel is destroyed, a huge timber beam blocks my way. Working on gut instinct, crawling on hands and knees, I back up to the stairway leading to the overhead catwalk. On the upper level there’s debris everywhere, as if the building has been hit by an aerial bomb. Trying not to get cut by the shattered glass, I inch along the catwalk that crosses the length of the chapel ceiling, hoping to find a way to reach the children.
The opening at the end of the catwalk is covered by a blanket. When I tentatively lift its edge a blast of smoke staggers me. Gingerly, I poke my head out. A fireball shoots down the corridor before my eyes—a red-and-yellow flash whose heat scorches my cheeks and deafens my ears with its roaring.
Since I can’t go forward, I have to retreat down the catwalk to the stairs. When I get to the lower level I find that the chapel is on fire. Another fireball, from the gym area, races across the ceiling. The tank has knocked a hole in the wall at the edge of the stage and I see people huddled there, trying to get away from the thick smoke. The air’s heat causes me to remove my black leather jacket; it’s covered with white spots from the gas. My gas mask’s filter has run out; feeling suffocated, I tear it off.
Ray Friesen, an elderly Canadian, says he can’t take it anymore—he’s going to jump out the window. I warn him they might shoot us, and he hesitates. Derek Lovelock, a black man from Britain, tells us he saw the women and kids in the concrete storage room. They haven’t made it to the underground bus because the way is blocked by rubble, he says, and my heart sinks lower. When Jimmy Riddle, a thirty-two-year-old Southerner, goes out the back door to the cafeteria, a tank rolls over the top of him, ripping off the right side of his torso. Stephen Henry, another young black man from Britain, is also run down, his left leg sheared off at the hip.
Amid these horrors, a mutt puppy, one of the children’s pets, comes trotting toward me out of the smoke. I toss him out the window, shooing him away into the open air, but the terrified dog keeps coming back. In the distance I hear the mocking cries from the FBI speakers: “David, you’ve had your fifteen minutes of fame! Now bring your people out, the siege is over.”
Now I’m down on my hands and knees, praying, God, if I’m going to die just make it quick. Just then, the wall of the stage catches fire, scorching the side of my face. The sharp smell of singed hair fills my nose and I scream from the depths of my gut. Seeing Jaime and Derek run out of the hole in the wall at the edge of the stage, I follow, preferring a swift death by the agents’ bullets to being roasted by fire.
Time slows down as I stumble through the mud. There’s a Red Cross sign fifty yards away, its symbol a small ray of hope in the dark clouds of smoke.
As Clive Doyle staggers through the same gap that I’ve just used to escape, flames follow. His arms are smoking, blistered skin peels from his hands, his coat is melting against his back. He thought he was the only survivor, he says, until he saw us. Marjorie Thomas, a black woman from Britain, is trapped on the second story. She puts her hands over her head, jumps out a window, then does a slow, 180-degree, midair turn, thumping on the ground, hideous burns all over her body. Graeme Craddock, a friend of Doyle’s from Australia, is lying inside the base of the tower, paralyzed, barely alive. Most of the nine people who escape the fire come out of the east wall of the chapel, like me, or through a crack in the front wall.
FBI agents force us to lie in a row on the ground, face-down, and they tie our hands behind our backs with plastic straps. “Where are the women and children?” an agent demands, his face close to mine. When I tell him I still hope they’re in the buried school bus, I hear another agent say, “We teargassed that bus.” Oh no, I cry silently, imagining the kids being suffocated in that underground tomb. It turns out that six women died near the trapdoor, suffocated in the blocked passageway.
"An extraordinary account of one of the most shameful episodes in recent American history. I wish that everyone in the country could read this book."
"This book gives a rare glimpse of life at Mount Carmel and an account of how that attack contrasts with the 'official' government version. With the renewed interest in this siege, this book is recommended for public libraries."
—School Library Journal
"This narrative defies many of our media-mediated preconceptions of Koresh's followers."
"Thibodeau, one of only four Branch Davidians to live through the Waco disaster and not be sentenced to jail, has produced a surprisingly balanced and honest account of his time as a Branch Davidian. Neither sensationalist nor defensive, this will make satisfying reading for anyone interested in the April 1993 tragedy."
"A disquieting portrait of a religious community and its enigmatic leader."
- "Honest... [about] whether the excessive force used by our government against American citizens was really necessary."—Lincoln Star Journal
- On Sale
- Jan 2, 2018
- Page Count
- 400 pages
- Hachette Books