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Chemist Says Gas May Have Suffocated Children at Waco

July 26, 1995 GMT

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The government’s use of tear gas at Waco was sharply debated Wednesday, with one chemist suggesting the gas attack may have killed children inside the Branch Davidian compound and another scientist concluding it did no harm.

In written testimony submitted to two congressional subcommittees investigating the events at Waco, George F. Uhlig, a professor of chemistry at the College of Eastern Utah, said a chemical used to carry the gas into the compound ``would have suffocated the children early on.″

He also wrote that a poorly ventilated area of the house ``could have been turned into an area similar to one of the gas chambers used by the Nazis at Auschwitz.″

Under questioning by Republicans who arranged his testimony, however, Uhlig said there was a 60 percent chance that the chemical used with the gas ``could″ have killed children.

The Justice Department immediately attacked Uhlig’s findings and a witness called by Democrats said he and his partner found no evidence that the gas caused any harm.

Questioning of the scientists marked one of the sharpest disputes in the six days of hearings so far.

Earlier in the day, a federal agent tearfully testified that he has no doubt the Davidians shot first when officers tried to serve warrants at the compound on Feb. 28, 1993. The agent, Jim Cavanaugh of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, also told of the difficulty in negotiating with a man ``who thought he was God.″

The siege ended 51 days after the shootout, after the FBI filled the compound with tear gas. A fire, which the government contends was started by Koresh and his followers, swept the compound.

Koresh and 80 of his followers died in what investigators called a mass suicide. Critics, including Uhlig, say the government was responsible for the deaths.

In an interview, Richard Scruggs, an assistant to Attorney General Janet Reno, said the Justice Department has found no evidence that the gas contributed to the deaths.

``If it had an effect, we would be very concerned about it and we would have been the first to say″ there was a problem, Scruggs said.

Uhlig admitted he was not an expert on chemical warfare agents. The Democrats’ witness, David Upshall, said he helped research the gas after it was first used in Northern Ireland.

Upshall concluded that while the deaths at Waco saddened him, he believed ``that the (tear) gas played no direct part in these deaths.″

FBI officials said they recommended using gas to try to end the siege because they did not believe David Koresh was on the verge of surrendering, as the sect leader’s lawyer contended on Tuesday.

The ATF’s Cavanaugh said he watched in horror from a nearby house on Feb. 28, 1993, as an attempt to serve warrants turned into a raging gun battle that left four ATF agents and six Davidians dead. In one poignant recitation, he described his attempts to negotiate an end to the gunfight and rescue wounded agents.

``I had a radio mike in one ear with an agent pleading for his life and I had a guy on the phone who thought he was God,″ he said.

Cavanaugh rejected Tuesday’s testimony by Davidian lawyers who accused government agents of starting the siege by firing first and ending it by launching a tear gas attack after Koresh and his followers had agreed to surrender.

``The Davidians fired first and I am sickened by any other assertion,″ Cavanaugh said. ``If I thought an ATF agent would drive up to a structure and start firing, I’d throw my badge in the garbage,″ he added. ``It didn’t happen.″

He also said Koresh had reneged on several offers to surrender and probably would not have come out, no matter how long the FBI waited before using gas to try to flush the Davidians from the compound.

``I don’t think the archangel Gabriel could have talked that guy out of there,″ Cavanaugh told the two subcommittees that have combined to hold the House hearings into what went wrong at Waco.

Reno approved the gassing plan, which was recommended by FBI agent Jeffrey Jamar, who commanded the federal agents when the siege ended. Jamar is now retired.

On Tuesday, the Davidians’ lawyers testified that Jamar had agreed to the surrender plan but was overruled by ``some deskbound bureaucrat in Washington.″ Jamar said he made the decision himself.

He also said he did not tell Attorney General Janet Reno about the surrender offer, although he subsequently learned someone else had notified her.

``There was never any reason to (tell her) because it was not a serious plan,″ Jamar said. ``It was a delaying tactic.″

Reno is scheduled to testify Monday, on the final day of the hearings.

Some Republican members of Congress contend the FBI lost patience with Koresh and ordered the gas attack even though he appeared ready to end the standoff.

Cavanaugh said the best chance for a peaceful resolution probably came March 2, just days after the shootout.

On that day, he said, the women and children lined up in a hallway ``and they all came by to kiss (Koresh’s) ring.″ Then, instead of coming out, Koresh said God told him to wait.

Cavanaugh said he agreed with others who theorized ``that he couldn’t leave this place, where he was God, with unlimited sexual favors ... and walk out to a cold jail cell.″