The Ghosts of Mount Carmel

In the ten years since a devastating fire took the lives of 74 Davidians, a group of survivors has returned to the windswept plains east of Waco, like ghosts haunting the site of their former compound. A new church has been built at Mount Carmel, and inside, they listen to their leader preach the same apocalyptic doctrine, and they wait for David Koresh to return.

Like most visitors, they had driven by the front gate slowly, then turned around and tentatively poked onto the property. The driver pulled up to the dirt parking area in front of the Mount Carmel visitors center, where the caretaker and three others were talking on the porch. The tourists got out almost timidly.

“Peace be with you!” one of the men on the porch called out.

“You bet!” replied the driver. “Y’all too!”

“In Jesus’ name.”

“God bless.”

The tourists were from Nacogdoches, two couples and two kids, and they spent about ten minutes inside the center. They checked out the shell casings, the handcuffs, the darkened doll with one arm broken off, and the photos of all the people who died here almost ten years ago. Then they got back in their car and made their way up to the ruins of the Davidian compound, 150 yards away, where on April 19, 1993, the FBI ended a 51-day standoff with David Koresh and his followers. Seventy-four died that day in the fire that consumed the compound, including 21 children—suffocated, shot, or crushed by falling debris.

The visitors walked slowly through the ruins, heads down, staring at the ground or reading the posted inscriptions. The kids ran around the broken concrete and climbed on the monuments. Then the women walked across the driveway and stood in the memorial grove of eighty crape myrtles, each with a plaque and a name. After ten minutes, they all got in the car and drove slowly back to the visitors center. The driver got out of the car, this time not at all self-consciously. He was angry, and he had something to say: “We witnessed the evil, saw the terror that our own people felt. We witnessed it. We knew; we knew in our hearts. You can’t kill the spirit. You can kill the man, but you can’t kill the spirit. I don’t care whether it’s this goddam government or another government… . What we witnessed here is just a precursor to what is yet to come. We experienced it here on a very small scale. All you have to do is read the Revelation. And before that spirit returns, there’s going to be hell on this earth, and people are gonna walk around in the dust and in the smoke, and they will be screaming and crying and praying.”

Then he returned to his car and slowly drove away.

I hear children laughing. Of course I hear other things too, like dogs. I figure the dogs are real but the children aren’t. Walking the property, all of a sudden I’m blanketed by a cold chill, as if I’m being watched or somebody’s got a gun on me. I’ve had people point guns at me from the road.—Ron Goins, 48, Mount Carmel caretaker

We’re accustomed to having the ugly bits of our past buried deep, out of sight. At Mount Carmel, a 77-acre tract of land ten miles east of Waco, the horrors of history come crawling from the earth. The concrete foundations of the Davidian compound crumble under your feet, and rebar sprouts like tangled weeds. The ground is pitted and uneven, like a battlefield. Plaques tell you where you’re standing: the chapel area, the men’s dormitory, and the vault, where nearly three dozen women and children were found dead. Not far away is the yellow roof of a buried school bus, which served as the entryway to half-completed underground shelters. The roof is torn, and the shelters are flooded with cold, dark water. Looking down into the blackness below, you expect some horrible distortion to reveal itself. With the wind blowing, and the wind is always blowing out here on the plains above Waco, Mount Carmel feels like the most desolate place on earth.

After the holocaust that took place here, plenty of Wacoans wished, or at least imagined, that the Davidians would disappear and fade into history. But ten years later, a few survivors and former followers are back, and they, like everyone else who has ever come to Mount Carmel, are looking for something. One hundred thirty people lived here in the winter of 1993; today there are eight—two near the front gate, associated with one branch of the church, and six more who live at the other end of the property, associated with another. One pastor is a true believer in former leader David Koresh, while the other thinks Koresh perverted the Davidian church’s message. There are other Davidians too, in Waco and elsewhere. They may not all believe the same thing, even on such mundane matters as who is entitled to the land; indeed, the hallmark of this sect has been a large degree of dissension and apostasy, to say nothing of insanity, murder, and messianism. But they are all, in their own ways, Davidians. And they all came here to understand the nature of God and, of course, where they fit into his scheme.

For now, the man who seems most in charge of the property, and maybe the future of the Davidians, is Clive Doyle, the preacher who lives in a tidy double-wide next to the visitors center. Like most Davidians, Clive, 62, is from somewhere else, in his case Australia. A Seventh-day Adventist as a teen, he came to Mount Carmel in 1966 and stayed, eventually becoming a disciple of Koresh and surviving the fire, though his hands were badly burned. After recuperating in Waco for a few years, he found a renewed purpose at Mount Carmel. He became the lay preacher for the surviving Davidians because, he says, in the aftermath, he was the only male follower in the area not in jail (he never took up arms against the government agents). His scarred hands also gave him a certain moral heft.

In 2000 Clive and his congregation moved into a new chapel, built and paid for by sympathetic volunteers (militia groups and regular citizens) and the Davidians themselves. Clive is now the

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...

Most Read

  • Viewed
  • Past:
  • 1 week