The Branch Davidian Compound in Waco, Texas — where 85 innocent men, women and children died at the hands of the U.S. government.
David Koresh (birth name Vernon Howell) and his followers and children had set up a ramshackle compound in Waco, Texas. Some members were recruited from as far away as Australia. Claiming to be Christ, Koresh said he had a special interpretation of the mysterious seven seals described in the Bible's Book of Revelation.
In late February 1993, after preliminary investigations, the ATF began preparing for what would be its biggest raid in history. They were concerned about the stockpiling of weapons at the Koresh compound, as well as the possible endangerment of children. All it lacked was a plan — and the element of surprise. When acting Special Agent in Charge Darrell Dyer arrived from Kansas City and asked to see the supporting documentation for the ATF's proposed raid, he found that none existed. In the next four days, Dyer and fellow agent William Krone drew up a plan — but it was never distributed.
On the day of the raid, February 28, 1993, an ambulance company hired by ATF agents leaked word of "Operation Trojan Horse" to a local TV station, which sent a cameraman to check on the situation. The cameraman asked a local postman, David Jones, for directions to the Koresh compound. He also told Jones about the upcoming raid. Jones, who was Koresh's brother-in-law, informed Koresh.
An undercover agent at Koresh's compound found out that Koresh knew of the raid, and found an excuse to leave. The agent in charge of the raid, Philip Chojnacki, decided the raid should still go on. On March 29, ATF head Higgins claimed, "We would not have executed the plans if our supervisors had lost the element of surprise." And yet that is exactly what they did.
Following the ATF raid — a disastrous affair which resulted in the death of four ATF agents and six Branch Davidians in a violent gun battle — the Koresh matter was turned over to the FBI.
A standoff ensued, lasting 51 days. The FBI and their forces demanded that Koresh and his followers surrender, and face charges concerning the killing and wounding of the ATF agents.
For awhile, the FBI had success negotiating with Koresh. Thirty seven people were released, including 21 children, before negotiations soured. To bolster their tactical case, officials depended on intelligence from inside the compound, but as Koresh grew more paranoid, that became much harder to gather. After negotiating to send in milk, magazines and a typewriter, the FBI tucked in tiny listening devices as well to monitor Koresh. Cult members found the bugs and destroyed them.
Prior to the assault, the FBI came to Attorney General Janet Reno with their plan to resolve the standoff, which was laid out in a briefing book. That started a week of meetings, briefings, phone calls and more meetings in which Reno probed the methods laid out by the bureau.
The plan ultimately developed involved pumping tear gas into the compound to create enough chaos to distract anyone intent on either firing back or orchestrating a mass suicide.
Reno had many questions. Why now? What was Koresh likely to do? Was this the best way to go? Her questions always came back to the well being of the children.
Reno was told that child abuse was occurring at the compound, ranging from slapping around to an "ongoing pattern of young girls in there being sexually abused." Reno finally approved the plan at 7:15 p.m. She called President Clinton the next night to brief him on the plan's details. The assault began the next morning.
The assault began a few minutes after 6 a.m., on April 19, when an armored Combat Engineer Vehicle (CEV) with a long steel nose began prodding a corner of the main compound building. Shots from the Branch Davidians immediately rang out from the windows.
A second CEV joined in, bucking walls, breaking windows, pushing, pushing, pushing, as though physically moving the building could move those inside.
Koresh left his apartment on the top floor and stalked the halls. "Get your gas masks on," he told the congregation. The masks would protect them for hours. They went about their chores, even as a tank crashed through the front door, past the piano, the potato sacks and the propane tank barricaded against it.
The vehicles exhaled clouds of tear gas as rounds of bullets rained down on them. Fleeing the gas, the women and children clustered in the center of the second floor, from which there was no exit.
A few minutes past noon, FBI agents claimed they saw a Davidian in a gas mask cupping his hands, as though lighting something. Soon, an explosion rocked the compound, then another and another as ammunition stores blew up. The building shuddered like the kind of End-of-Days apocalyptic earthquakes Koresh had often spoken of in his sermons.
The FBI waited, expecting that at any moment adults or children would be coming out. No one did. Eventually word came that several adult Davidians were in fact already outside the building. Ruth Riddle, who had jumped through a hole punched in the wall, was spotted. She was taken to safety by FBI agents. A man appeared on the roof of the compound, his clothing in flames. He fell from the roof. Agents put out the fire and took him to safety.
Fanned by 30 mile-per-hour winds, flames roared through the Branch Davidian compound. They raced through the big parlor, feeding on the wooden benches and the stacks of Bibles kept by the door. The chapel crackled as flames consumed the wooden pew-like bleachers which Koresh's followers had built for his sermons. Table after table in the cafeteria burned, and rows of children's wooden bunk beds upstairs. The flames spread faster, through the attic that ran the length of the building like a wind tunnel. Fatally, it had been built on the cheap, out of tar-paper, yellow-pine and plasterboard. By the time fire fighters entered the compound, only ashes and bones were left. And questions.
Some speculated that the tanks punctured the propane tank barricading the door, sending flames speeding through a storage room full of of gallon fuel containers for the lanterns, lighting the hay bales and other debris.
Survivor Avraam, who escaped by diving out a window, said, "People had no time to get out. The fire spread very fast."
FBI agent Sage claimed, "I saw three fires almost simultaneously. There's no question but that it was not started by the tanks in front of the building. That's ridiculous. I saw tanks at different points from where the fires were."
As the week progressed the FBI had to back off certain claims: that they had fresh evidence of child abuse, that they had actually seen a cult member lighting the fire, and that some victims were shot by fellow Davidians for trying to flee.
A couple days before the fiery destruction, Koresh promised that he and his followers would emerge as soon as he finished his manuscript interpreting the Seven Seals of the Bible's Book of Revelation.
FBI officials, exasperated after the 51-day siege and by Koresh's constantly shifting demands about the terms of his surrender, doubted the manuscript existed and went ahead with the raid.
But a woman who escaped from the fire carried with her the first 13 page installment of what she said was Koresh's manuscript.
According to a 220 page critique of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms issued by the Treasury department in October of 1993, the Feb. 28 raid on David Koresh's compound in Waco, Texas, resulted in the death of four ATF agents and six cult members and led to a 51-day siege and a fiery conflagration that claimed the lives of 85 people, including at least 17 children. The Bureau, the report said, not only handled a sensitive situation ineptly but tried to cover up its bumbling with lies and obfuscation. As the study coldly noted, "There may be occasions when pressing operational considerations — or legal constraints — prevent law-enforcement officials from being... completely candid in their public utterances. This was not one of them." The field commanders made "inaccurate and disingenuous statements" to cover up their missteps, putting the blame on agents.
After the report was released, Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, whose department is in charge of ATF, announced the replacement of the agency's entire top management. ATF's boss, Stephen Higgins, who knew the report would be harsh, announced his retirement three days before.
There is ample reason to believe the FBI played a decisive role in the deaths of those at the Waco compound. If they had been patient — if they had exercised self-restraint in the face of David Koresh's intransigence and provocations — there could have been a peaceful end to the standoff. But of course we'll never know.
Hover your mouse over the pictures below for captions.
Time Magazine, March 15, May 3, May 10, October 11, 1993
U.S. News & World Report, March 15, 1993
Newsweek, October 11, 1993