Once again, the city of Waco has fallen victim to what happened in its vicinity, and certainly without any blame to its residents or its leaders.
I lived in the Waco area in 1993 when the David Koresh-Mount Carmel standoff took place over a 51-day period. The national media reported the incident as being “in Waco” rather than almost 10 miles OUTSIDE the city limits. The actual hometown of the Branch Davidian compound was Elk, Texas, but since nobody recognized the location, reporters tagged the location as Waco.
By the way, a lonely man was standing in the airport in Kalamazoo, Mich., that Sunday with his eyes affixed to the national TV coverage, slowly grinding his fingers across his chin. One of his fellow flyers waiting for an incoming aircraft asked why he appeared so intent watching the story.
He replied, “That’s where I’m flying. I start as the city manager tomorrow.” Thus was the literal baptism under fire for Jim Holgerssen, who 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 Monday: “We will have 200 members of the international media by the end of today, and over 400 by tomorrow.” My count was conservative, with well over 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 road approaching Mount Carmel. The City of Waco held daily briefings in a room at the convention center and, later, held both morning and afternoon briefings.
Waco fell victim to the length of the standoff for members of the media, who planned to witness resolution of the incident within a few days. As it became apparent the incident could last for weeks, the 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 as if they were blaming the city, 10 miles away from the action, for something totally beyond its control.
After the end of the siege, I went on a ski trip and grew tired 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 (a Waco suburb where I did live), just 30 miles from Temple.” This helped me avoid the inevitable Waco questions.
If you worry how much that legacy still lives, consider that a recent episode of Madam 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.”
Just as Killeen’s residents were never at fault for the shootings at Luby’s Cafeteria and Oklahoma City’s residents were never blamed for the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, Wacoans had nothing to do with Mount Carmel.
David Koresh was not some well-known person whom we all saw at the grocery store, visited with and sat with in the local restaurant.
When the compound caught fire, I remember receiving a 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 this time, on May 17, 2015, is that one local person was apparently involved – whoever made that decision on behalf of Twin Peaks restaurant to allow the event despite warnings from local authorities.
Waco was just the largest city near the wrong place at the wrong time. It had the same bad luck on May 17, when a shootout erupted at a Twin Peaks restaurant off I-35 where hundreds of members of several motorcycle gangs had gathered. When it was over, nine bikers were dead in the parking lot, 18 were wounded and 170 were arrested. The only difference this time is that one local person was apparently involved – whoever made the decision on behalf of Twin Peaks restaurant to welcome the bikers despite the warnings of the Waco Police Department.
Even now, with so much going for Waco, from the growth of Baylor University in both athletics and academics, the stunning new McLane Stadium on Interstate 35, and the city becoming such a regional hub of sporting events (remember, the NCAA’s national tennis championships were taking place at Baylor at the same time), to the rejuvenation of downtown, retail and industrial commerce, the city returns to the forefront of the news with a major blemish – again, undeserved.
John Fletcher is the CEO of Fletcher Consulting, a local marketing and public relations firm.