25 Years Since Fiery End to 51-Day Standoff With Religious Sect in Waco, Texas

Around 6 a.m. on April 19, 1993, FBI agents moved in to end a 51-day standoff with the Branch Davidian religious sect near Waco, Texas, ramming holes in the group’s compound with armored vehicles and spraying tear gas inside. About six hours later, smoke poured from the compound, which soon was consumed by a massive fire.

The standoff started on Feb. 28, 1993, when federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents tried to arrest sect leader David Koresh for stockpiling illegal weapons. Four agents and six Davidians were killed during an ensuing gunfight that day.

The federal government said the April 19 fire was ignited by the Davidians. A 2000 report by a former senator appointed by the attorney general found that the Davidians spread fuel throughout the compound to feed the flames.

Nine people escaped the burning building. The report concluded that at least 76 people — including about two dozen teens and children — died that day, but noted that the exact number couldn’t be stated because of the “extensive burning” and “commingling of bodies.” At least 20 people, including Koresh and some of the children, died of gunshot wounds. A 3-year-old was stabbed to death. Investigators concluded the Davidians shot themselves or each other as the fire broke out.

Two years later, on April 19, 1995, a truck bomb detonated outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 186 people. Prosecutors said Timothy McVeigh planned the bombing as revenge for the deadly standoff in Waco.

Here are story and a timeline published by The Associated Press the day the standoff ended.




WACO, TEXAS, APRIL 19 — Doomsday cult leader David Koresh’s apocalyptic vision came true Monday when fire believed set by his followers destroyed their prairie compound as federal agents tried to drive them out with tear gas after a 51-day standoff.

As many as 86 members of the Branch Davidian religious sect, including Koresh and 24 children, were thought to have died as the flames raced through the wooden buildings in 30 minutes. Only nine were known to have survived.

The blaze, fanned by stiff winds, erupted about 12:05 p.m., just six hours after FBI agents began using armored vehicles to pound holes in the complex of buildings and spray them with tear gas.

“I can’t tell you the shock and the horror that all of us felt when we saw those flames coming out,” FBI spokesman Bob Ricks said in a solemn afternoon news conference. “We thought, ‘Oh my God, they are killing themselves.'”

Attorney General Janet Reno said she personally approved the assault in hopes of forcing a peaceful ending to the standoff. She said she never considered the “chances were great for mass suicide,” despite Koresh’s warning in a letter just last week that any agents trying to harm him would be “devoured by fire.”

Federal authorities said they wouldn’t know the precise death toll until they could search an underground maze of passageways. The search was expected to start Tuesday, after the site cooled down.

“We can only assume that there was a massive loss of life,” Ricks said. “It was truly an inferno of flames.”

Ricks said agents did search a buried bus on the grounds after one of the survivors told them that the children had been herded there. But Ricks said only two or three bodies were found there.

The FBI previously had said two of the women in the compound were pregnant, one of whom was due to deliver in May. They apparently were not among the survivors.

Four of the survivors, including a 16-year-old girl, were hospitalized with burns and broken bones; the five others were being held as material witnesses in McLennan County Jail.

One survivor told authorities that people inside the compound had set the blaze, said Justice Department spokesman Carl Stern. The man said that as he left one of the buildings, “he could hear above him people saying, ‘The fire’s been lit, the fire’s been lit,'” Stern said.

Ricks said multiple witnesses, including FBI snipers positioned outside the compound, spotted cult members setting fires.

The agents reported seeing a man wearing a gas mask and black uniform throw something inside, followed by a fireball. The man “was knelt down with his hands cupped, from which a flame erupted,” Ricks said.

Additionally, Ricks said, a man found Monday afternoon in a bunker on the grounds said lantern fuel had been spread throughout the wooden complex and that the fire was started simultaneously in several places.

“We did not introduce fire into this compound,” Ricks said. “David Koresh, we believe, gave the order to commit suicide, and they all followed willingly his order. …

“He wanted to have as many people killed in that compound as possible,” Ricks said. “That is why it was named the Ranch Apocalypse,” a term cult members sometimes used.

Dick DeGuerin, Koresh’s attorney, said the FBI’s actions changed the rules.

“The situation changed when the FBI went back and injected tear gas and ripped apart the walls,” he said. “I think that could have only been seen by those inside as the apocalypse coming upon them.”

Late in the day, Reno told reporters the FBI’s assault was meant to be “a step forward” that “would increase pressure” on the cultists to end the standoff.

“Obviously,” she said, “if I had thought that the chances were great for mass suicide, I would never have approved the plan.”

Koresh’s mother, Bonnie Haldeman, lashed out at the FBI late Monday while the compound still smoldered.

“I don’t know what David did,” Mrs. Haldeman said by telephone. “I can’t answer for the people in there or for what they did. I don’t know what they were thinking. …

“There were law-abiding, God-fearing people in there. They didn’t hurt anybody. It’s ridiculous. They’re going to pay,” she said in a quavering voice.

Monday’s action began well before dawn when federal agents notified the compound’s neighbors “that it would end today,” according to Melanie Felton, a nearby rancher. At 5:55 a.m., the FBI telephoned the compound and told Steve Schneider, considered Koresh’s top lieutenant, that agents would gas the complex unless cult members surrendered immediately. Schneider hung up.

A combat engineering vehicle called an M-60 then moved to the southwest corner of the compound, broke a hole in the wall and started the gassing. At least 75 to 80 rounds of gunfire came from the compound in an initial volley.

Agents continued ripping holes in buildings throughout the morning, and Ricks spoke calmly at a 10:30 a.m. session with reporters about the decision to force Koresh and his followers out.

“Today’s action is not an indication that our patience has run out,” Ricks said. “The action taken today was, we believe, the next logical step in a series of actions to bring this episode to a conclusion.”

Ricks also said authorities believed the tear-gassing was the best way to avert a possible mass suicide, because it would “cause confusion inside the compound.”

But barely 90 minutes later, billowing flames and smoke began spewing from the sprawling rural compound. Fire department units, not on hand through the early assault, had to be summoned and arrived about 12:30 p.m., when most of the buildings were already gutted.

Ricks later refused to second-guess the decision not to have firefighters on the scene, explaining that gunfire from cultists and explosives stored in the compound would have put them at risk.

The chemical that agents sprayed into the compound is called CS2, a fine powder that stings the skin, eyes, nose and throat, according to Doug Koger, a chemical specialist with the U.S. Army Materiel Command in Alexandria, Va.

CS2 is delivered through a tube by tanks of compressed air, which does not involve any flame or explosive, Koger said.

Gas was delivered through the compound’s front door, into the room believed to be Koresh’s, and into the buried bus and underground tunnel network, Ricks said at the morning news conference.

“We will continue to gas them and make their lives as uncomfortable as possible until they do exit the compound,” he said.

The siege began Feb. 28 when a raid by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms resulted in a gun battle that killed four agents. The cult said at least six members were killed. ATF agents said they had an arrest warrant charging Koresh with firearms violations.

Of the 25 children who were in the compound at the start of its final day, 17 were 10 years old or younger. Thirty-seven people, mostly children, had left the compound during the standoff. Koresh had said in the siege’s later days that 94 followers remained at his side.



By The Associated Press

WACO, TEXAS, APRIL 19 — Events Monday at the compound where cult leader David Koresh and 94 of his followers holed up after a Feb. 28 shootout with federal agents. Times are CDT, local time in Waco, Texas.

Midnight-5:30 a.m.: All appears quiet.

About 5:50 a.m.: Federal agents reportedly call compound and inform cult members to give up or they will be gassed. Person inside compound reportedly hangs up on caller.

About 6 a.m.: Texas Department of Public Safety officer warns media gathered about two miles from compound to “take cover.”

About 6:04 a.m.: An armored vehicle smashes through front wall of compound just left of front door, leaving hole about 8 feet high and 10 feet wide.

About 6:15 a.m.: An ambulance rushes toward compound with lights flashing.

At 6:55 a.m.: Authorities call Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in Waco to be on alert.

About 8 a.m.: Armored vehicle with large battering arm rips into second floor of compound and minutes later another hole is punched into back of compound. Armored vehicles then withdraw.

About 9 a.m.: President Clinton says he was briefed and U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno has given go-ahead for tactical plan.

About 9:20 a.m.: Armored vehicle returns to compound and bashes another hole in front wall of compound, taking out front door.

About 10 a.m.: FBI spokesman Charles Mandigo in Washington says tear gas sprayed into compound.

10:30 a.m.: FBI special agent Bob Ricks says ramming of building and use of tear gas intended as “next logical step” to ending the 51-day standoff. Ricks says agents in armored vehicles were met with shots from inside the compound but did not return fire and no one was injured.

About 11:30 a.m.: Armored vehicles continue battering cult buildings.

12:15 p.m.: Flames and smoke pour from compound. Person is seen on roof. Strong winds fan fire.

12:28 p.m. Person with hands raised walks to armored vehicle and appears to surrender. A second person appears to come out of compound, dragging something – possibly another person – toward armored vehicle. Fire has destroyed much of compound.

12:30 p.m. Parts of roof collapses.

12:38 p.m. Fire trucks arrive at compound.

4 p.m. Federal authorities say eight survive; “massive loss of life” presumed among remaining cult members; Koresh among those believed dead.

SOURCE: The Associated Press