Before the United States’ Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms decided to lay siege to their gun-filled compound some 25 years ago, the wider world knew nothing of David Koresh or his loyal 'Branch Davidians'. Once the stand-off had reached its tragic conclusion, however, the group (or at least what was left of them) were headline news across the globe.
The Waco siege - and the subsequent fire that devastated the modest complex that Koresh and his followers called home - saw the deaths of some 86 people in total, including 17 children.
Since the flames engulfed The Mount Carmel Center in the central Texan city of Waco on that fateful day, debate has raged in all quarters about who was responsible for all that horror and death. Some folk will tell you that Koresh was a thoroughly evil cult leader who intentionally and cynically led his brainwashed minions to their untimely deaths. While others will argue that he was merely a well-meaning and principled pastor and that the government strong-armed them into violence.
Whoever was at fault, this seemingly avoidable catastrophe is now forever indelibly seared into the minds of the American - and world’s - consciousness. Such was the scale of the calamity.
We’re not going to try to convince you on either point of view. In truth, there’s probably a little right and wrong on both sides. What we can do though, is give you a detailed breakdown of what happened in the build-up to, during and after the truly awful events of the Waco siege.
Vernon Wayne Howell is born to a single 14-year-old mother in Houston, Texas. A troubled upbringing led the man who would become known as David Koresh to the church and, eventually, a path to death and destruction.
After a brief spell with the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Howell would settle down with an offshoot known as the Branch Davidians.
After a power struggle within the ranks, Howell takes over the church, claiming to have the powers of prophecy and a direct line to God.
The Lord has informed him to start putting together an 'Army for God' and to prepare for the 'end of days'.
Howell declares that he has been told by God to 'procreate with all the women in the group' and will need to split up married couples and have everyone agree that only he can engage in sexual activity with the women, while the husbands will observe total celibacy. Howell also declares that The Lord has informed him to start putting together an 'Army for God' and to prepare for the 'end of days' and the 'salvation of his followers'.
Vernon legally changes his name to David Koresh, professing himself to be ‘the spiritual descendant of King David’ and ‘a messianic figure carrying out a divinely commissioned errand.'
The local Sheriff’s Department receives a tip-off about possible statutory rapes being carried out at the complex by Koresh. They are also told about a stockpile of weapons being built up by the congregation. They pass this information on to the ATF.
Having built up a case against the leader of the Branch Davidians, the ATF attempts to raid Mt. Carmel. They approach with the intention of searching the premises fully and arresting David Koresh. But an accidental warning from a TV cameraman makes its way to senior Davidians who have time to anticipate the raid. To the ATF’s shock, they meet their approach with gunfire. Four feds die in the gun battle, along with six Davidians. Over a dozen others, including Koresh himself, are injured.
Having retreated the day before, the ATF surrender command to the FBI, who begin negotiations. Straight away, they secure the release of 10 children from the compound. The siege has begun. It would last another 51 days…
Koresh promises to surrender if a special video message he has recorded is televised. The FBI agrees and the tape is broadcast on the Christian Broadcasting Network almost immediately. Koresh, however, goes back on his word. He now claims God is telling him not to give up.
During negotiations, Koresh informs the authorities that all remaining children are biologically his and as such would be remaining with him inside Mt. Carmel.
The electricity is cut to the compound but is later restored after some bartering and promises from Koresh.
Further discussions break down, so the FBI decide to cut off electricity permanently. It’s part of a concerted effort to ratchet up the pressure on Koresh which also includes bright spotlights beaming on the compound, day and night. And, to further irritate and underpin the sense of doom and powerlessness the Davidians must feel, loud music is also now played at them round the clock.
Over the weekend, federal negotiators manage to convince Koresh to allow eight women and two men to leave.
The Branch Davidians promise to give themselves up after observing Passover, asking for a period of up to eight days’ grace.
In anticipation of Koresh reneging on the Passover deal, the FBI apply in writing to US Attorney General Janet Reno for permission to use tear gas on the compound. She refuses to allow it initially. But, soon, she changes her mind.
The FBI prepare to enter Mt. Carmel and make arrests by force. Reno approves the CS gas plan and gets sign-off on the plan from President Bill Clinton.
It’s day 51 of the siege and the FBI decide to storm the complex. They inform Koresh that he is under arrest and for everyone to prepare for a tear gas attack. They gas the buildings. Gunfire reins out but not at federal agents, it seems. It’s feared that some Branch Davidians inside have been shot dead. Feds then see a small fire being lit. Then another. And then another. More gunfire. Nine Davidians flee and are arrested. There’s more gunfire from inside. Firefighters attempt to put out the blaze. A huge explosion rings out. The roof collapses in on itself. More explosions. Eventually, the fire dies down. Later that day, the compound is completely levelled. The FBI confirms that Koresh was dead. Like so many of his devout followers.
A jury returns guilty charges on a number of survivors for firearms charges and for ‘aiding and abetting the voluntary manslaughter of federal agents’.
Janet Reno's special counsel, ex-Republican senator John C. Danforth issues his preliminary report into the tragedy. In it, he fully exonerates the US government and all its agents. The report comes to the conclusion that federal agents were not responsible for the fire or for directly discharging weapons at the complex. Danforth also assigns total responsibility for the incident to David Koresh and the Branch Davidians.