Once again, the city of Waco has fallen victim to what happened in its vicinity and certainly without any blame to its residents or leaders.
I lived in the Waco area in 1993 when the David Koresh-Mount Carmel incident took place over a 51-day period. The national media reported the incident as being “in Waco” rather than almost 10 miles outside our city limits. The actual hometown of the Branch Davidian compound was Elk, but since nobody recognized the location, reporters simply tagged the location as Waco.
Incidentally, a lone man stood in the airport in Kalamazoo, Michigan, that fateful Sunday 22 years ago, his eyes fixed on national TV coverage about the deadly Branch Davidian compound shootout with federal agents. A fellow passenger waiting for their incoming flight asked why he was so intent watching the story unfold.
“That’s where I’m flying,” he replied. “I start as the city manager tomorrow.”
And so Jim Holgersson began what would literally be a baptism by fire. He would do an excellent job of dealing with the international media during his first two months on the job. He was blessed to have an excellent mayor, Bob Sheehy, a local attorney who was thoughtful, considerate and deliberate in his comments.
I made a prediction to the president of the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce that following Monday: “We will have 200 members of the international media here by the end of today and over 400 by tomorrow.” My count was conservative, with far more than 200 the first day and a total of 450 the next. Satellite TV trucks filled the hotel parking lots and then the area up and down the rural road approaching Mount Carmel. The city of Waco held daily briefings in a room at the convention center and, later, both morning and afternoon briefings.
Waco fell victim to the length of the standoff — 51 days. The media assumed they would witness resolution of the incident within a few days. As it became apparent the incident could last for weeks, reporters grew restless and wanted to return home. However, their news directors and editors required them to file daily reports from Waco/Mount Carmel.
Many reporters showed their frustration by producing negative side stories about Waco, more or less blaming the city — again, 10 miles from the action — for something totally beyond its control. True, Waco did not have the night life of Austin or Chicago — likely the cause of some frustration — but then it never claimed to, either.
After the end of the siege, I went on a ski trip. During it, I grew weary of saying I was from Waco because everyone asked how large a gun I carried. Everyone thought we were from the Old West. I finally resorted to saying I was “from Woodway, just 30 miles from Temple.” This at least helped me avoid the inevitable Waco questions.
If you wonder how much that legacy still lives, consider that a recent episode of “Madame Secretary” on the CBS-TV network contained a cautionary line from the president of the United States when he warned his secretary of state about the consequences of a hostile standoff: “Be careful. I don’t want another Waco here.”
Yet just as Killeen’s residents were never at fault for the shootings at Luby’s and Oklahoma City residents were never blamed for the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building explosion, Wacoans had nothing to do with the weekslong siege at Mount Carmel, including the FBI attack and subsequent inferno. We suffered by stubborn association with this complicated saga that, in the end, resulted in so many innocent children dying. It was truly a tragedy, both in terms of abruptly extinguished youth and a city saddled with an undeserved reputation.
Interestingly, most of us in Waco had no idea where Mount Carmel was even located till this standoff garnered national headlines. And Branch Davidian leader David Koresh was not some well-known person whom we all saw at the grocery store, visited with or sat with in the local restaurant. Most of us had never heard of him, much less his teachings and the fact that he had created his own secure compound, all part of his doomsday visions.
When the compound caught fire that final day, I remember receiving a phone call from Mayor Sheehy: “John, I need you to write my comments to the international media. We’re holding a news conference in two hours and I’ve got to get it right.” It was my honor to perform this community service.
My draft went to the effect of, “Today we witnessed an unfortunate tragedy. We are deeply saddened and we mourn the loss of life, particularly among innocent young children. Our prayers are with the souls of those who perished and with their families and loved ones. Even though this incident took place 10 miles outside our city, we still hurt for those who lost their lives or were injured.”
Waco was just the largest city near the wrong place at the wrong time. The only difference in Sunday’s melee is that one local person — whoever makes decisions for the Twin Peaks restaurant — might have contributed to the tragedy by ignoring warnings of Waco police. Time will tell.