Wednesday, June 28, 2000

WACO, Texas A survivor of the final day of the government’s siege on the Branch Davidian compound recalled that her hands were on fire as she leaped from the second floor of the complex that was engulfed in smoke and flames.

Misty Ferguson, whose fingers on both hands were later amputated, jumped from a second-story wall the afternoon that more than 80 Branch Davidians died in an inferno at Mount Carmel in 1993.

“There was a hole there in the front side of the building, and I jumped from the building there,” Miss Ferguson, 24, testified yesterday in a wrongful-death trial against the federal government. “My hands were already burned.”

She testified that she was “real scared” and disoriented as government tanks began demolishing the buildings and injecting tear gas canisters into the smoky darkness. She felt the building shaking and cracking apart.

Suddenly, she said, after crawling along the floor for an indeterminate time, she saw a glimmer of light from outside.

“I saw this little bit of light,” she said, and headed for it. “It was a hole in the front side and I jumped from the building there.”

“It was my only way out,” she said wistfully. She spoke softly, sometimes in a mere whisper.

Michael Caddell, the plaintiffs’ lead counsel, led the tiny, soft-spoken Miss Ferguson through her 50-minute testimony slowly, not mentioning the loss of her fingers, but the deformity was obvious when she took her oath and when she would nervously pat her hair.

Referring to one of the government lawyers’ opening remarks, which suggested none of the Branch Davidians had tried to escape when the fire erupted, Mr. Caddell asked her what she was trying to do.

“You were trying to get out.”

“Yes, sir,” she replied.

“Why did you want to get out?”

“I didn’t want to be burned,” she said.

The plaintiffs called Miss Ferguson as they neared the end of their case.

Ramsey Clark, a former U.S. attorney general, said he had a half-dozen or so witnesses, but thought it might not take more than another day.

Mr. Caddell represents almost 50 families of victims who died in the April 19, 1993, fire. Mr. Clark represents several survivors.

The plaintiffs hope to convince the jury that the government overstepped its authorization by ramming holes in the compound and was negligent in not providing adequate firefighting equipment at the scene. They seek $675 million in damages.

The government has contended that the use of tanks and the insertion of tear gas on the fatal day did not contribute to the fire that quickly swept the makeshift compound. Government lawyers say the Davidians set the fire themselves.

Hostage rescue team commander Richard Rogers and Danny Coulson, the FBI’s top expert on tactical matters, have offered different theories on what happened and why, but they were not called to testify.

Mr. Caddell said he thought the government, which will probably begin its case late today, may want to call some of the commanders, so they can explain what happened and why.

“I think at this point,” said Mr. Caddell, “that they’re the ones who have to do things like bring [Jeffrey] Jamar [the head FBI on-scene tactical commander] and Rogers to explain what the hell happened out there, and show everybody what their authority was.”

Earlier yesterday, a former Branch Davidian whose pregnant daughter also died on the final day of the standoff from a gunshot wound testified that sect leader David Koresh never labeled the agents as enemies.

In a deposition read to jurors, Oliver Gyarfas said his daughter, Aisha, who was 17 when she died, was one of several females living at the compound who was married to Koresh.

Mr. Gyarfas recalled Koresh’s Bible studies, saying he taught that there would be an apocalyptic end of the world, but never said tanks, gunfire or fire would play a role. He also said Koresh never taught that the FBI and other federal agents were “the Beast,” or the apocalyptic symbol of the devil.

“He said the way to win a person over to God’s side is to use the Bible and to never use force of any kind,” Mr. Gyarfas testified.

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