On February 28, 1993, some 80 agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) raided a religious compound at Mount Carmel, near Waco, Texas, after receiving reports that the Branch Davidians and their leader, David Koresh, were violating federal firearms regulations.
After four ATF agents and six Davidians were killed in the gun battle that followed, a cease-fire was arranged, and nearly 900 law enforcement officials eventually surrounded the compound, including hostage negotiators and rescue teams from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
Reporters soon arrived on the scene as well, and the 51-day siege that followed would play out on TV screens and in newspaper headlines around the world. Despite some early negotiating successes—the Davidians sent about 2 dozen children out in exchange for food and other supplies—numerous children remained among those inside, many of them Koresh’s children with various women.
In the 1930s, a disgruntled member of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church named Victor Houteff had broken away and founded the Davidian movement. After Houteff’s death, Ben Roden led an offshoot of the movement known as the Branch Davidians, who took control of Houteff’s original settlement at Mount Carmel, near Waco, by 1962.
Believing the Bible is literally the word of God, the Branch Davidians looked to it for clues about the end of the world and Christ’s Second Coming, as told in the Book of Revelation.
Roden died in 1978, leaving his wife, Lois, as head prophetess of the sect. In 1981, a 22-year-old convert named Vernon Wayne Howell arrived at Mount Carmel; he became involved with Lois Roden, and after her death clashed with her son, George, over control.
In a gun battle in late 1987, George Roden was shot in the head and chest, and Howell and seven followers went on trial for attempted murder. The seven other men were acquitted, and Howell’s case ended in a mistrial.
By 1990, having asserted control over the Branch Davidians, Howell legally changed his name to David Koresh. (“Koresh” is the Hebrew translation of Cyrus, the ancient Persian king who conquered Babylon and allowed the Jews to return to Israel.)
DAVID KORESH AND THE FBI
In his negotiations with the FBI during the Waco siege, Koresh claimed he was a messianic figure prophesied in the Bible and that God had given him his surname. He threatened violence against those who would attack him and his family, but asserted that the Davidians weren’t planning a mass suicide.
To the Branch Davidians, Koresh was “the Lamb,” the only one (according to the Book of Revelation) worthy of unlocking the Seven Seals and revealing to the world the entirety of the Bible’s teachings. This identification allowed Koresh to justify some of his controversial (even within the sect) practices, including taking various “spiritual wives,” some reportedly as young as 11 years old.
As time wore on, the negotiators and the Hostage Rescue Team, which handled all the tactical maneuvers, disagreed on how to handle the siege. The latter team, frustrated by the slow pace of negotiations, employed aggressive tactics like playing ear-splitting music or crushing the Davidians’ cars—disrupting often-delicate negotiation efforts.
FIRE ENGULFS WACO COMPOUND
In mid-April, after religious scholars reached out to Koresh through a radio discussion of the teachings of Revelation, Koresh sent a message through his lawyer announcing he had received word from God and was writing his message on the Seven Seals; he would come out with his followers when he was finished.
The FBI, unconvinced, decided to act to end the siege. Though initially reluctant, Attorney General Janet Reno ended up approving a plan to fire CS gas (a form of tear gas) into the Mount Carmel compound to try and force out the Davidians. Just after 6 a.m. on April 19, 1993, FBI agents used two specially equipped tanks to penetrate the compound and deposit some 400 containers of gas inside.
Soon after the attack ended, around 12 pm, several fires simultaneously broke out around the compound, and gunfire was heard inside. Safety concerns prevented firefighters from entering Mount Carmel immediately, and the flames spread quickly and engulfed the property.
Though nine Davidians were able to escape, investigators later found 76 bodies inside the compound, including 25 children. Some of them, including Koresh, had fatal gunshot wounds, suggesting suicide or murder-suicide.
LEGACY OF THE WACO SIEGE
From the beginning, the government’s handling of the Waco siege (which played out in the national and international media) was heavily criticized. Reno took responsibility for the botched raid, later admitting there was no evidence of ongoing child abuse within the compound (which had been one of the justifications for ordering the gas attack).
Though the government long maintained that its actions played no role in starting the fires at the Waco compound, in 1999 it was revealed that some of the gas the FBI used was flammable under certain conditions.
Reno subsequently appointed the lawyer and former senator John Danforth to lead an investigation into the siege’s end. In 2000, he concluded that government agents did not start the fires or shoot at the compound.
Despite this conclusion, resentment lingered about the government’s handling of the situation, which partially fueled the growth of homegrown militias in the United States. The Waco siege and the 1992 Ruby Ridge incident in Idaho are often cited by government critics as examples of overreach and intrusion by federal officials.
In April 1995, on the second anniversary of the Waco siege’s end, a militant named Timothy McVeigh used a truck loaded with 4,800 pounds of fuel oil and aluminum nitrate to attack the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. With a total of 168 people killed and some 850 wounded, the Oklahoma City bombing was by far the deadliest terrorist attack in the United States to that date.
Waco: The Inside Story, PBS Frontline.
James D. Tabor and Eugene V. Gallagher, Why Waco? Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America.
Malcolm Gladwell, “Sacred and Profane,” The New Yorker (March 31, 2014).