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30 years after the siege, 'Waco' examines what led to the catastrophe

The Texas and the ATF flags fly at half staff April 23, 1993, over the only structure left standing after a fire destroyed the the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas on April 19.
J. David Ake
AFP via Getty Images
The Texas and the ATF flags fly at half staff April 23, 1993, over the only structure left standing after a fire destroyed the the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas on April 19.

In the winter and spring of 1993, more than 80 people, including four federal agents and at least 20 children, died in two violent confrontations between federal law enforcement and the Branch Davidian Christian sect near Waco, Texas. Extremist groups have since cited the assaults as evidence for anti-government conspiracy theories.

In his new book, Waco: David Koresh, The Branch Davidians and a Legacy of Rage, author Jeff Guinn describes the group's leader, David Koresh, as a religious demagogue who took multiple teenage brides and preached that he and his followers would bring about a conflict that would make the end of days happen in their lifetimes.

"David Koresh wanted to make sure that when the final battle occurred, his followers would be able to fight the way the Book of Revelation said they must," Guinn says. "It had to be an all-out battle. His people were going to die, but, obviously, they had to be ready to kill the the agents of Babylon."

Government agents began investigating the Branch Davidians over charges that children at the compound were being abused and that the group was stockpiling weapons. On the morning of Feb. 28, 1993, 76 agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) arrived at the compound, called Mount Carmel, expecting to surprise the group.

"[The agents] were given no information about what the Branch Davidians believed, what their religious faith meant," Guinn says. "They thought from their sources that all the guns were kept in a locked room at Mount Carmel, a room that could only be opened with Koresh's permission."

In fact, Koresh had passed out weapons at the compound, so most members of the group were stocked with guns and ammunition. What's more, the Branch Davidians knew the ATF was coming. A three-hour gunfight ensued, during which five Branch Davidians and four federal agents were killed.

"Almost one third of the ATF agents are carried away, bleeding or dead from this fight," Guinn says. "Before noon on this day, ATF is dragging itself away like a defeated army."

A 51-day standoff followed, during which the FBI took over from the ATF. Hostage negotiators tried to convince Koresh to surrender. Meanwhile, tactical experts planned for a second raid that would rely on CS gas (a type of tear gas) to drive the group members out.

"In small doses, [the gas] wasn't supposed to be flammable, and it wasn't supposed to really be too physically affecting beyond irritation to eyes and skin," Guinn says. "It would be enough, if inserted gradually, so the Branch Davidians would come out."

On April 19, 1993, the FBI moved forward with its plan, but something went terribly wrong. A fire broke out at the compound, engulfing Mount Carmel in flames and killing all but nine of the people inside. Later, each side would claim that the other was responsible for the conflagration, but Guinn points out that of the three entities involved, only one wanted it to resolve in death.

"The ATF and the FBI both went in, not just with the hope, but with the actual determination that no lives were going to be lost. ATF and FBI officials made terrible mistakes that led to loss of life, and that is horrible. But it was not the original intention," he says. "Only the Branch Davidian agenda required people to die."

Interview highlights

/ Simon & Schuster
Simon & Schuster

On how Koresh's teachings benefited him

What David Koresh would do for his followers at Mount Carmel is occasionally announce that God had sent him a "new light," a new message. The initial messages basically were ways everyone could work better, love the Lord more, and basically make yourself worthy of being saved when the end times came. But gradually, some of these "new lights" benefited David Koresh and no one else. This is not unique among religious demagogues who claim a special relationship with God.

The first thing he claimed — even though he already had a wife, a 14-year-old girl, pushing legal limits in Texas, but she had her parents permission so the marriage was legal — he announced that God now wanted him to have wives, multiple wives. He pointed out some scriptural passages that he said backed this up, and he claimed that he needed multiple wives because it was his job to sire 24 children who would become elders and help rule after the kingdom of God's reestablished, at the end times. Then he further announces that among all the women at Mount Carmel, every woman of childbearing age — and that would be, say, from 12 up — were now his wives and could have sex only with him for procreation purposes. The husbands of these women were forbidden to have sex at all anymore. And Koresh said this was a blessing to them because now they could focus their energies on studying the Bible more and becoming more worthy of the Lord. So it was sex. It was everyone else's wives. And he even decided God wanted him to have the only unit air conditioning in Mount Carmel.

On the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) targeting the Branch Davidians for their stockpile of illegal weapons

The Branch Davidians wanted to use guns to raise money initially. They would take semiautomatic weapons, buy extra parts, turn them into automatic weapons and sell them at a considerable profit. It also allowed them to build the stockpile at Mount Carmel for their final battle. They not only had the guns, but they also bought grenade shells and powders. So they built illegal grenades. ...

[The ATF] heard from a couple disgruntled Branch Davidians who had left ... that Koresh was actually training his people in the use of these weapons and that eventually the Branch Davidians might actually launch an attack out of Mount Carmel on civilians around Waco, that there was going to be some kind of mass attack or even a mass suicide, like the one that occurred some years earlier in Jonestown, with Peoples Temple in Guyana.

So the ATF made the decision: They are going to go into Mount Carmel, they're going to raid, they're going to take away these illegal guns and they are going to arrest whoever is in charge, meaning at least David Koresh.

On the 51-day stand-off between the FBI and the Branch Davidians

Inside Mount Carmel, David's followers were waiting for something to happen. He had promised them that they were going to be translated into great glory. Nothing was happening. Nobody trusted the other side, and nobody really could communicate with the other side, because if people don't want to understand what the other person's saying, it doesn't make any difference how hard you try to negotiate, nothing's going to happen. Until finally, towards the end, [Koresh] said that if he would be allowed to write out his explanation of the seven seals of the Book of Revelation and get those out to religious leaders in the country, he and his followers would come out. That was his promise. The FBI didn't believe him and decided something had to be done to end the siege.

On the fire that broke out at Mount Carmel

Within a few hours, somehow the gas ignited. It was inevitable it would. There was such an accumulation of it and the building went up like a book of matches.

It was a windy, cold day. The [gas] canisters first went in. The FBI claimed that there was gunfire from Mount Carmel. Surviving Branch Davidians swear that never happened. But whatever happened, all the canisters went in and gradually swirling clouds of CS gas began to spread throughout the building. The only heat the Branch Davidians had came from Coleman lanterns with oil that had to have little flames. Within a few hours, somehow the gas ignited. It was inevitable it would. There was such an accumulation of it and the building went up like a book of matches. The fire was almost instantaneous. The flames rose in the air. Of the Branch Davidians left inside, only nine escaped with their lives. No one else came out. Everyone else died in a flaming hell. It's almost indescribable how horrible it was in there.

On anti-government protests in Waco

It was here that Waco became ground zero for future militancy. And Waco would become to the conspiracy minded, a great symbol of the evil of American government.

Maybe the most vocal group, the most obvious group, were people who saw in Waco the same things they had suspected in earlier Ruby Ridge [Idaho] about six months before, that the United States government was systematically trying to murder, or at least repress, gun-owning, law-abiding citizens who had never done anything to hurt anybody else. There were a lot of militants selling anti-government T-shirts and bumper stickers. One of them — and we have a picture of this in the book — was a guy named Timothy McVeigh, who two years later would blow up the federal building in Oklahoma City in protest of what had happened in Waco. It was here that Waco became ground zero for future militancy. And Waco would become to the conspiracy minded, a great symbol of the evil of American government.

On the FBI's response to what happened

If we ever want proof that trying to cover up small things when mistakes have been made is the worst thing you can possibly do, just look at Mount Carmel in Waco. In the aftermath of the terrible fire, the FBI stated that they simply had done what had been agreed upon with the attorney general, gradually inserting CS gas, it was all non-flammable, and that Attorney General [Janet] Reno had agreed to it. They lied, in that early that morning, they had used some combustible military rounds to insert gas, as well as the noncombustible rounds that they had promised the attorney general. But these military rounds never actually broke into flames. The fire started hours after those rounds were fired. But when the FBI got caught lying about that, then, of course, it made it easy for conspiracists to say they're lying about everything.

On speaking with the surviving Branch Davidians, 30 years later

I've written about Charles Manson and I've talked to some of his followers all these years since, talked to the people who followed Jim Jones and survived Jonestown. And those folks inevitably would say, "How could I believe this? What a fool I was." But the people who survived Mount Carmel, who believed in David Koresh, believe in him to this day — that what the ATF did, and then the FBI [did], perfectly fulfilled David's prophecy that he and the others who died at Mount Carmel have been translated up and are waiting, and at some point, God is going to return them at the head of his armies, we're going to have this clash and the end of days will come. They've been sustained in this belief for 30 years. It's unshakable. And I think that shows the power, the charisma of David Koresh. How can it be otherwise?

Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Dave Davies
Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.