WACO, TEX. -- The big satellite trucks and the clamoring reporters are long gone, and the bold headlines are history. But few people have forgotten what used to be on this quiet, lonesome plain outside of town.
Not Bryce Rawlinson, a retired neighbor who pedals his bicycle up to the old Branch Davidian compound every day, chats with the security guards sitting in the bullet-riddled bus and pets the sad-eyed dog that once belonged to David Koresh and is known as Junkyard.
Not John D. Ellis, a protester who sits by the locked gate in the 103-degree heat, selling those memorable pictures of the pale-colored compound shimmering in the distance, some with the final flames, some without.
And certainly not Sheila Martin, a survivor who lives, for now, like a half dozen other survivors, in a painfully neat, empty room at the Brittney Hotel, finding what comfort she can in her Bible. Martin's four oldest children, including Lisa, 13, who loved to fix her hair and accessorize, perished in the fire that ended Koresh's 51-day standoff against federal agents April 19. The fire also left Martin a widow. She is resigned in the knowledge that people will always wonder why Wayne, her husband, a reserved lawyer educated at Harvard, felt such deep loyalty for an egotistical high school dropout like David Koresh.
"Nobody understands," said Martin, 46, who has a soft voice and a shy, gracious manner. "I think people seemed to feel somehow or other that, because my husband was intelligent, he shouldn't believe what he believed. It wasn't about David. It was about what he taught us. If we, the people who came out of this alive, if we had not had this training, if all we saw was David Koresh, I could not be sitting here talking. I would lose my mind."
Some tragedies, some huge media events, have a long, strange afterlife. Who could imagine that each week hundreds of sightseers -- busloads of gospel singers, Methodist and Lutheran ministers, prosperous couples with video cameras and once an entire women's basketball team -- would seek out this devastated spot off Route 2491 on the central Texas plains, peer through the chain-link fence, trudge quietly around the perimeter? What are they hoping to find?
There is so little to see. Bulldozers worked over the area in mid-May, and scrap metal, mostly from the tall water tower that used to define the property, was sold long ago. A fence surrounds the three-acre core of the compound, marking an area quarantined by the state health department. As if the fence were a memorial to the Branch Davidian dead, people have left bouquets of flowers threaded through its links. David Pareya, a McLennan County justice of the peace, said no one knows how many people died in the fire. Many of the corpses remain unidentified and unburied. The best guess, he said, is at least 80 deaths.
A few items visible in the scattered debris tug at the heart -- a baby's bassinet, damaged but still white, propped against the fence, and a child's small bicycle, blackened and partially melted, lying broken on its side.
The significance was not lost on Doug and Lesley Young as they wandered over the site. They had seen it on television so many times, beginning Feb. 28, when four Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents and six Branch Davidians died in a shootout after a failed raid; continuing through the bleak late winter days of the standoff, and ending on a windy spring afternoon when a fire swiftly turned the compound into a tomb. The Youngs, like so many who followed the tragedy closely, hate most to think about the children who suffered and died.
"We just wanted to see what it was like," said Leslie Young, 25, a teacher, who recently moved here with her husband from Odessa. "It kind of haunts you."
It was late afternoon on a weekday, and the hot sun glinted through the mesquite trees and cows mooed in the far fields. One could think that nothing ever happened in such a quiet rural spot, and yet the Youngs know that their new home will always be linked with a tragedy of international proportions.
"Waco will never get over it," said Doug Young, 31, a college student. "Everybody I told I was moving to Waco had something smart to say -- 'Are you going to open your own compound, or what?' It got old pretty quick."
The Youngs could get back in their car, stop at the Dairy Queen for a milkshake as they had planned and try to put the spookiness of the scene out of their minds. Sheila Martin and other Branch Davidians who wait and pray at the Brittney Hotel cannot escape their memories.
It has been said that the 70-room Brittney, located downtown, a stone's throw from the convention center where the FBI held daily news briefings, is not exactly the Ritz. Built in 1960, its decor features rust-colored carpeting and brown bedspreads. Usually, clean towels are scarce, and only one television channel appears clearly. But for many weeks, it has been the most accommodating of havens for Martin and the others. Although a dozen Branch Davidians are in the county jail on murder and weapons charges, others such as Martin are considered material witnesses. They are free to move about Waco but not to leave town. Catherine Matteson, 77, the oldest Koresh follower to walk out of the compound alive, also lives in the Brittney.
During these days in limbo, their salvation, they said, has been the Brittney's owner, Mark Domangue, who with his wife, Wyliene, and two small daughters has welcomed the dispossessed men and women with open arms and free lodging. Domangue, 32, feels strongly that the constitutional rights of the Branch Davidians were violated and has posted bond for several members of the group. He drives his boarders to meetings with lawyers and pretrial officers and takes them to dinner occasionally, making them laugh by transferring bacon from his cheeseburger to their plates. "There, I've contaminated your food," he says, knowing that the Branch Davidians have strictures against eating pork. Some of them say his sense of humor reminds them fondly of Koresh.
"Well, they're people," said Domangue, who attends a local Baptist church. "I never saw them as cultists. I saw them as people." He said he has conducted his own investigation into what happened at the compound. "I like to know the truth about things. I'm not a nosy person, but I like to know what happened. I'm not anti-government either, but from that very first press conference they held, they had four different versions of what went on during the siege. And then the stories changed again from time to time. It really disappointed me that the government could get away with that. Well, they get away with it all the time, but nobody knows the magnitude."
Domangue does not believe the government's conclusion that Koresh and his followers set fire to the compound and died in a mass suicide. Too much does not add up, he said. Of course, Sheila Martin does not believe that account, either. Wayne would not kill himself, she said. David would not kill himself.
It was Sheila Martin, not Wayne, who was the first link between Koresh and her family. Distraught that one of her young sons was blinded and disabled after a bout with meningitis, she began talking to Koresh on the telephone in 1982 and found him vastly comforting, she said. In 1985, the Martins left their home in Durham, N.C., where Wayne worked as a law professor at North Carolina Central University, and moved to Texas. They began life inside the compound in 1988. Sheila Martin left with her three youngest children, ages 11, 7 and 4, on March 21. She was not there for the end. Now Martin is trying to regain custody of her three remaining children, among them the blind boy, who are in foster care.
No one understands, she said, how nice it was to be part of Koresh's circle. "They showed you a picture of a house on the news, and they never showed you the life going on inside," she said, almost crying. She paused for a long moment. "Those were the happiest years of my life."
Now other people -- still curious, still troubled, still unsatisfied and seeking answers -- try to get as close as they can to her former home.
At the end of the hot, still day, with the sun a pink ball hanging low in the rainless sky, Rawlinson made one of his regular rides to the compound. It fascinates him, he said. He was nearby that first Sunday, Feb. 28: "I watched the ATF carry their wounded out." He has kept a scrapbook of clippings about the tragedy. He likes to tell of the time he bought eight Swiss milk goats from the group. He was impressed with the businesslike manner:
"They had like a city council meeting, figured out how much they had spent raising the goats and then figured out how much they should charge me. They were nice as they could be to me, but that's my version."
A retired city employee, Rawlinson, 66, chatted with Norma Vollintine, one of two private security guards always on duty. She has adopted Junkyard the dog and brings him food. That day she brought him "half a brisket and he ate the whole thing and he's still hungry," she said. As daylight faded, silhouettes of several couples drawn to the site shone black in the distance. One group approached, video camera in tow.
"I gotta say it's kind of spooky out here," said Scott Thomas, 31, with his wife, July, and their small daughter. "I guess it would almost have to be. It's bound to be haunted, big time." He studied the ruins. "A lot of poor souls out here who didn't want to die."