WACO, Texas – In the ashes of the Branch Davidian site where nearly 80 people died in a 1993 blaze after an armed standoff with federal agents, a new religious community is slowly taking shape.
Charles Pace, leader of The Branch, The Lord of Righteousness sect of the Branch Davidians, hopes to open a museum for tourists in addition to building a tabernacle and wellness center as part of his new church.
But the few remaining Branch Davidians who once lived at the compound oppose Pace and his plans, saying the museum won't be an accurate representation of the events of April 19, 1993, because he was not there and despised their leader David Koresh.
"He'll portray us as deceived and put us down and say David Koresh was the devil," said Clive Doyle, who survived the fire and lived at the site until leaving last year because of conflicts with Pace.
On Feb. 28, 1993, authorities tried to arrest Koresh for stockpiling guns and explosives. The ensuing shootout killed four U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents and six Davidians.
That began a 51-day standoff that ended with an inferno that survivors say was ignited by tear gas rounds fired into the buildings. The government claims the Davidians committed suicide by setting the fire and shooting themselves. A 10-month independent investigation concluded in 2000 that Koresh was solely to blame.
The raid, the siege and its fiery conclusion were seen by some as an unwarranted government intrusion into personal and religious freedoms. Exactly two years after the Texas tragedy, Timothy McVeigh detonated a bomb at the Oklahoma City federal building, killing 168 people in an act intended to avenge the Davidians' deaths.
Pace, 57, returned in 1994 to the Waco-area property — owned by the church, an offshoot of the Seventh-day Adventists.
"I just felt I needed to be here to represent the true church," he said.
Since then he and his family have lived on its 77 acres of sprawling pastures and ponds.
Pace believes Koresh misled his followers, but said they thought they were following God's will. Despite his differences with the sect, Pace blames the U.S. government for the Davidians' death.
Visitors still come to the site about 10 miles east of Waco. But there are no signs directing them there or markers commemorating its notorious place in history; only a few charred remnants of the compound remain, piled under some brush near a swimming pool. Near a small chapel built a few years later are plaques with names of the Davidians and ATF agents who died.
People sympathetic to the group planted a simple memorial of trees and placed under each one a granite stone inscribed with the names of the Branch Davidians who died in the 1993 standoff.
But Pace removed the stones, destroying Koresh's, and is contemplating tearing down the trees, saying they are an abomination, according to the Bible. Instead, he plans to build a wall from the stones, with a new stone bearing Koresh's real name, Vernon Howell.
In addition, Pace, foresees the establishment of "a spiritual community" on the property, with families living in separate houses or mobile homes, as opposed to the group living situation that existed under Koresh. They would attend church and seek treatment at a wellness center.
"I believe people are going to be coming here seeking truth, and they're going to find it and they're going to be healed, physically and spiritually," said Pace, a licensed massage therapist.
Ray Feight Sr., a contractor who lives at the site and attends its church, said the goal is to change the negative image.
"We want the David Koresh thing to be history; we want to go on," Feight said. "It's daunting — we don't have the finances or the means to do all this. It seems like when God calls people to do this, there's no way, but it's all about restoration and healing. The image of this scarred land needs to be healed."
Pace estimates that the project will take years — and several million dollars in donations — to complete, partly because the property lacks running water and a septic system.
Waco has long tried to distance itself from the tragic events.
Jim Vaughan, director of the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce, said raising millions to develop such a memorial is unlikely without "a whole lot of meetings and input and conversations in the community."
"You have to ask, `What is the story that the community would want to tell?"' he asked.
Doyle, whose 18-year-old daughter died in the blaze, leads weekly services at his apartment for the handful of Davidians who still follow Koresh's teachings. Doyle said he wishes the site could have a larger memorial telling the victims' story, but he refuses to participate in Pace's project or to give him the Davidians' mementos that Doyle displayed in his own museum there a few years ago.
Sheila Martin, who left the compound during the standoff with three of her children but lost her husband and four other children in the fire, said she also opposes Pace's plans. She said he was not trying to honor the victims but call attention to himself.
"I don't think it's anything that God is pleased with," Martin said.