- INTRODUCTION -
David Koresh (originally named Vernon Howell) and his followers and some children had set up a base in Waco, Texas. Some members were recruited from as far away as Australia. Claiming to be Christ, Koresh claimed to have a special interpretation of the mysterious seven seals described in the Bible's Book of Revelation.
WHAT STARTED IT ALL:
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 paperwork, 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 the ATF agents leaked word of "Operation Trojan Horse" to a local TV station, which then 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 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 pending 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."
COUNTDOWN TO DISASTER
Following the disastrous ATF raid, the Koresh matter was turned over to the FBI.
A standoff took place, lasting 51 days. The FBI and their people wanted Koresh and his followers to come out, and face charges concerning the killing and wounding of ATF agents.
For awhile, the FBI had had success negotiating with Koresh. They got 37 people out, including 21 children, before negotiations went sour. To make their tactical case, officials had to defend on their intelligence from the inside of the compound, but as Koresh grew more paranoid it was harder to gather. After negotiating to send in milk, magazines and a typewriter, they tucked in tiny listening devices as well to monitor Koresh's moods. But cult members were said to have found the bugs and destroyed them.
Prior to the assault, the FBI came to Reno with their plan, laid out in a briefing book, That started a week of meetings, briefings, phone calls and more meetings in which Reno probed the motives and methods the bureau laid out.
The plan ultimately presented to Reno involved pumping tear gas into the compound to create enough chaos to distract anyone intent on either firing back or orchestrating a mass suicide. Perhaps those wavering would come out.
That was the plan FBI director William Sessions and his deputies put before Reno on Monday morning. She had many questions. Why now? What is Koresh likely to do? Is this the best way to go? Her questions always came back to the children.
Reno was told that child abuse was going on at the compound, ranging from slapping around to the "ongoing pattern of young girls in there being sexually abused/ She approved the plan at 7:15 p.m. She called President Clinton the next night to inform him of her plan. The assault began the next morning.
DAY OF DEATH:
The pounding began a few minutes after 6 a.m., April 19, when an armored combat engineer vehicle with a long, insistent steel nose began prodding a corner of the main building. Shots rang out from the windows the moment agents began pumping in tear gas.
A second cev joined in bucking walls, breaking windows, nudging, nudging, as though moving the building would move those inside.
Koresh left his apartment on the top floor and stalked the halls. "get your gas masks on," he told them. 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 the 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 earthquake Koresh had foretold.
The FBI waited to see adults or children coming out. No one did. Eventually word got out that several adult Davidians were 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, his clothing in flames. He fell off the roof. Agents put out the fire and took him to safety.
Helped by 30 mile per hour wind, flames roared through the Branch Davidian compound. The fire raced through the big parlor, feeding on the wooden benches and the stacks of Bibles kept by the door. The chapel crackled as flamed consumed the wooden pew-like bleachers for his audience. Table after table in the cafeteria burned, and rows of children's wooden bunk beds upstairs, as the flames spread faster, through the attic that ran the length of the building like a wind tunnel. It burned fast because it was built on the cheap, a tar-paper, yellow-pine and plasterboard. By the time the fire fighters went into the compound, only ashes and bones were left, and questions.
WHAT MAY HAVE CAUSED THE FIRES:
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 claims, "People had no time to get out. The fire spread very fast," says Avraam, who escaped by diving out a window.
At the time, FBI agent Sage claimed, "I saw three fires almost simultaneously." Insisted Sage, "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."
WHY THE LIES?
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.
ANOTHER FBI MISCALCULATION:
A couple days before the fiery destruction, Koresh promised that he and his followers would emerge as soon a she had 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 that the manuscript and went ahead with the raid.
A woman who escaped from the fire carried with her the first, 13 page, installment of Koresh's manuscript.