The First Raid
At around 9 am on 28th February 1993, the ATF began an elaborate advance on the complex, which included the use of Texas National Guard helicopters and two large covered cattle trailers, which actually contained 76 heavily armed ATF agents. The helicopters were employed in an attempt to divert attention away from the trailers, which drove into the compound, but in the event the Branch Davidians were amply prepared for the assault, and a fierce gun battle ensued, in which both sides denied having fired the first shot. There were claims later that the helicopters had also fired on the residential complex, but these were denied by the authorities.
“The gun battle raged for over an hour, and resulted in the death of four ATF officials, the wounding of 20 others, as well as the death of two Branch Davidians, and the wounding of five others.”
During the attack, ATF officials were in contact with Koresh but continued to fire on the complex whilst trying to negotiate surrender simultaneously. There appeared to be no one in overall control of the operation. The local police who attended the scene did not know how to contact the ATF command and requested that local media crews call for ambulances on their mobiles. Sources within the ATF had tipped off the media about the impending raid, yet ATF agents were recorded assaulting members of the assembled media, when they realised that cameramen were close enough to be filming their defeat. Despite taped evidence showing the brutal assault, no ATF agents were ever prosecuted.
The gun battle raged for over an hour, and resulted in the death of four ATF officials, the wounding of 20 others, as well as the death of two Branch Davidians, and the wounding of five others. An uneasy cease-fire was negotiated, largely because the ATF agents had run out of ammunition. The entire raid was a disaster for the ATF and the other federal agencies involved, and the loss of life to federal law enforcement agencies was the worst on record.
The next day, 1st March 1993, the ATF handed official control of the situation to the FBI, and this marked the beginning of a siege that would last for the next 51 days.
Shortly after assuming control of the operation, the FBI made telephonic contact with Koresh, who stipulated that he would be prepared to surrender, if the authorities would agree to facilitate a national radio broadcast to spread his religious message. Despite arranging for Koresh’s tape to be broadcast on the Christian Broadcasting Network, Koresh failed to cooperate, claiming that God has instructed him to wait a while before surrendering. Within a week of the broadcast, Koresh allowed 23 of his followers to leave the complex. The adults were immediately arrested and the children placed with social services.
The FBI authorities requested that Koresh make a videotape of the children still within the complex, to prove that they were not in danger, and sent in camera equipment. However, Koresh used the opportunity to make a pro-Davidian recording, outlining details of the attack and the wounds suffered by Davidian members during the gun fight. The FBI decided not to release the footage publicly, for fear of increasing public sympathy towards Koresh and his followers.
By 15th March, all ATF officials were forbidden from speaking publicly about the abortive raid, on threat of dismissal, in an attempt to keep full details concealed. However, within two weeks, agents who had taken part in the attacks were speaking anonymously to the press, about the grave errors they had witnessed during the raid. When questions were raised about why Koresh had not simply been arrested while outside the fortified complex, it became clear that no intensive surveillance of his movements was ever carried out. The authorities had expected their own firepower to prevail in any arrest scenario.
Meanwhile, the siege continued, with Koresh agreeing to, and then reneging on, numerous agreements to surrender. The FBI viewed the other Davidians as Koresh’s hostages, despite a number of videos which seem to imply that the members were there of their own free will, and they employed psychological warfare tactics, such as the playing of loud music and other noise through amplifiers, on a round-the-clock basis, in an attempt to disorient the occupants.
By 30th March 1993, the FBI had allowed a criminal defence attorney, Dick DeGuerin, to enter the complex unescorted, to discuss Koresh’s possible legal defence in the event of his surrender but still Koresh refused to cooperate.
The Second Raid
Finally, the newly appointed US Attorney General, Janet Reno, frustrated at the lack of progress in the midst of a media maelstrom, decided that a second armed raid would have to be mounted, in order to end the siege. At the time she claimed that this was prompted by the belief that the children were in danger, although later she admitted that she had no proof to support this belief.
At approximately 6:00 am on 19th April 1993, armoured tanks, equipped with CS gas dispensers, smashed through the walls of the Mount Carmel residence, distributing CS gas throughout the building. Although Davidian members had gas masks, they were too large for children, and it was hoped that parents would surrender, rather than see their children suffer the effects of the gas. Again, this proved a vain hope and no Davidians left the building over the next four hours. FBI agents continued to launch teargas canisters into the building sporadically, using grenade launchers.
At around noon, it appeared that fire had broken out in a number of different areas within the building. The cause of this fire was disputed later. Some claimed that the authorities had started the fire through the delivery of the CS gas and teargas canisters, whilst others maintained that Koresh had orchestrated the fires deliberately in an intentional mass suicide bid. The latter view was supported by the official investigation.
Whatever the cause, the entire building was quickly engulfed in flames. The FBI refused permission for fire-fighting teams to tackle the blaze, due to the risk of gunfire from within the building, and the blaze claimed the lives of 76 Branch Davidians, including 27 children, and leader David Koresh. The majority were later found to have died from smoke-related causes. Twenty Davidians also had gunshot wounds but it was difficult to determine whether these were self-inflicted, or caused either by the authorities outside or exploding ammunition within the building.