Branch Davidians’ Compound Burns Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

When the Federal Bureau of Investigation carried out a raid on the Branch Davidian religious cult, the action resulted in the deaths of more than eighty persons, led to an investigation of the government agencies involved, and became a rallying point for antigovernment sentiment.

Summary of Event

On April 19, 1993, more than eighty members of the Branch Davidians, a religious sect, died during a government raid on the group’s compound in Waco, Texas. The fiery battle was exactly what cult leader David Koresh had predicted, and the loss of life fulfilled Attorney General Janet Reno’s greatest fear. Branch Davidians Cults, religious Religious cults Federal Bureau of Investigation;Branch Davidians compound raid [kw]Branch Davidians’ Compound Burns (Apr. 19, 1993) [kw]Compound Burns, Branch Davidians’ (Apr. 19, 1993) Branch Davidians Cults, religious Religious cults Federal Bureau of Investigation;Branch Davidians compound raid [g]North America;Apr. 19, 1993: Branch Davidians’ Compound Burns[08580] [g]United States;Apr. 19, 1993: Branch Davidians’ Compound Burns[08580] [c]Religion, theology, and ethics;Apr. 19, 1993: Branch Davidians’ Compound Burns[08580] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Apr. 19, 1993: Branch Davidians’ Compound Burns[08580] Koresh, David Reno, Janet Sessions, William

The tragedy occurred at Mt. Carmel, called Ranch Apocalypse, in the wake of a decision by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to end a fifty-one-day standoff with force. The decision had been a difficult one, and the results convinced the U.S. attorney general, Janet Reno, that it had been the wrong one. The Mt. Carmel residents were members of the Branch Davidian cult, an offshoot of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The group had lived peacefully in Waco since 1935, with only one flare-up of unrest—when Vernon Wayne Howell (later known as David Koresh) challenged George Roden’s Roden, George leadership during the 1980’s. When Roden was incarcerated on murder charges, Howell took over the Davidians, and peace seemed to reign. Eventually, however, disturbing reports began to surface. Neighbors complained of hearing machine-gun fire, and it was reported that children in the compound were being sexually abused. A delivery man informed authorities about shipments of grenades. Finally, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, U.S. (ATF) began to investigate.

The ATF leadership became alarmed when they substantiated reports that the cult had amassed nearly $200,000 worth of guns and other weapons. On February 28, 1993, the agency moved to take control of Mt. Carmel. The attempt failed, and a shootout ensued in which four agents and six Davidians died. It was uncertain who had fired first, but the ATF received great criticism for its show of force. Because Koresh was often seen in the community, many people questioned why the authorities had not arrested him in town instead of attempting to take the compound. Some critics accused the ATF of tipping off the media in order to gain publicity and protect the agency from budget cuts. Others believed that ATF leaders knew they had lost the element of surprise, yet sent their agents into a seeming death trap. Whatever the truth behind the failed raid, the result was a nerve-wracking standoff.

In the weeks that followed, the FBI surrounded the compound and attempted to persuade the Davidians to surrender. First, the agency gave Koresh whatever he requested, including broadcast of a rambling, fifty-eight-minute speech. In exchange, Koresh allowed thirty-seven Branch Davidians, including twenty-one children, to leave the compound. When conciliation yielded no more results, the FBI began to flood the compound with annoying bright lights and loud sounds. The agents even attempted to smuggle listening devices into Mt. Carmel to gather intelligence that would enable agents to devise better strategies. Koresh and the remaining cult members held their ground.

A ninth-grade dropout and disappointed rock musician, Koresh had become convinced that he was God incarnate. He claimed that he was a sinful Jesus whom God had sent to earth to experience the vices of man—training that would prepare Koresh to stand in judgment of the sinners of the world on the final Judgment Day. True to his convictions, Koresh denied himself nothing. He enjoyed beer, fast cars, and promiscuous sex but denied them to his followers. He isolated the men and took every female he desired as a wife—even girls as young as eleven years of age—claiming he was the only one holy enough to sire children. His followers gave in to these demands, surrendered their possessions, and submitted themselves to hours of rambling sermons. Koresh maintained his control over the adults by withholding food. To ensure the proper behavior of children, Koresh established a spanking room.

During the siege, the FBI consulted psychological experts who became increasingly alarmed at Koresh’s behavior. They told the agency that Koresh saw himself as invincible, and they predicted that he would never allow the remaining Branch Davidians to leave the compound. The FBI searched for a plan to bring the standoff to a conclusion. It was rumored that the entire compound was booby-trapped, so any attack had to proceed cautiously. The ATF had proof that the Davidians possessed powerful weapons and night-vision scopes. Sentries appeared to guard the windows at all times and held children up to the windows whenever agents approached. Strategists considered attacking with a water cannon, but they were worried that the force of the blow could cause the building to collapse on the children. FBI director William Sessions and his top deputies put together a plan based on the use of gas to cause confusion; they then approached Attorney General Reno for approval of the plan.

Reno questioned the FBI about the danger of exposing people to any form of noxious gas. She was concerned that an anesthetic gas might be too strong for the children and might cause their deaths. The FBI brought in an expert who persuaded Reno that tear gas would not be carcinogenic or otherwise inflict permanent harm. Reno also wanted to know how Koresh would react to this type of pressure. No one could say for sure if he would lead his followers to death. Negotiators had questioned Koresh about his plans for suicide more than once, and each time he denied such plans. However, a warning concerning Davidians in Australia had been received the year before, predicting they would never be taken alive. Reno weighed the evidence and demanded that the FBI restate its justification. Finally, she contacted President Bill Clinton and made her recommendation to approve the attack.

At 6:00 a.m., April 19, the barrage began. Two armored combat engineer vehicles (CEVs) began moving toward the compound as loudspeaker announcements urged the cult members to surrender. Koresh ordered his followers to don gas masks. Then the shooting began. The CEVs began breaking holes in the compound’s walls, and gas was pumped throughout the building. The women and children gathered in the center of the second floor, where there was no exit. Around noon, the announcements urging surrender were repeated. The gas was so thick, the agents urged the people in the compound to walk toward the sound of the loudspeaker. Then explosions shook the area—the ammunition stores had exploded.

Fire consumes the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, on April 19, 1993.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Winds began gusting to thirty miles per hour, and the building—which had been constructed of flimsy, flammable materials—was engulfed in fire. The flames were further fueled by bales of hay that had been placed against windows for warmth and by a propane tank that had been used to block the door. As the agents watched helplessly, several people suddenly remembered hearing about a school bus that had been buried on the grounds for use as a bunker. They investigated to see if the children had been hidden there, but it was empty. By the time the blaze was out, nothing was left but ashes and bodies.

Significance

Later that day, Reno addressed the media and took full responsibility for the decision that had precipitated the Waco disaster. Many people thought she was committing political suicide, but she stood firm. She noted that she deeply regretted the loss of life, and she insisted that the decision had been hers alone. Some analysts held that Reno could not be considered completely to blame; many speculated that Koresh had planned to set the fires from the beginning. His few surviving disciples, however, denied any plans of mass suicide. One young man who had lived in the compound for a year asserted that the residents had intended to evacuate—that many of them were near the front of the building when a CEV caused it to collapse, starting a fire that filled the area with black smoke, making it impossible for anyone to see any escape routes. Children and adults fled for the interior areas, but the fire spread too quickly and they were trapped. Another survivor told of trying to get to the children but finding the way blocked with debris caused by government vehicles.

The FBI agents on the scene insisted that their CEVs did not start the blaze. They contended that the fire began in several locations at the same moment; they believed that Koresh deliberately murdered his followers to fulfill his prophecy. Some experts who have been trained to deal with terrorists, however, remained critical of the FBI’s handling of the Branch Davidians, contending that the use of gas was a mistake and suggesting that the FBI never considered seriously the possibility of the cult members’ willingness to die for Koresh. Some theologians, moreover, argued that the federal agents neglected any opportunity to use the cult’s religious leanings to approach a peaceful resolution. Regardless of who was at fault, or whether (as seems likely) both Koresh and the FBI agents contributed to the events that resulted in the deaths, the Waco debacle soon assumed symbolic importance among certain antigovernment groups. Along with similar incidents at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and, in the spring of 1996, near Jordan, Montana, the events at Waco reinforced the sentiments of some Americans that the federal government was taking too much control of the lives of U.S. citizens. Branch Davidians Cults, religious Religious cults Federal Bureau of Investigation;Branch Davidians compound raid

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Breault, Marc. Inside the Cult: A Member’s Exclusive Chilling Account of Madness and Depravity in David Koresh. New York: Dutton, 1993. Account published soon after the events at Waco by a former recruiter for the Branch Davidians provides some background information. Includes photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gibbs, Nancy, et al. “Oh My God, They’re Killing Themselves!” Time, May 3, 1993, 26-42. Much of this issue is devoted to a series of articles providing background and accounts of the events at Waco.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gotschal, Mary G. “A Marriage Made in Hell.” National Review, April 4, 1994, 57-60. Discusses the legal background of the Branch Davidians’ clash with government agencies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reavis, Dick J. The Ashes of Waco: An Investigation. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. Journalistic account examines the events at Waco from the perspectives of both the federal agencies involved and the followers of David Koresh. Draws on interviews with Branch Davidian survivors, trial transcripts, published accounts, and other sources. Includes bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tabor, James D., and Eugene V. Gallagher. Why Waco? Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. Discusses the Branch Davidians as an unconventional religious group and examines American reactions to such groups. Includes illustrations and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wright, Stuart A., ed. Armageddon in Waco: Critical Perspectives on the Branch Davidian Conflict. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. Collection of essays by scholars in history, law, sociology, and religion provides background on the Branch Davidians and their leader as well as wide-ranging analysis of the events that took place in Waco. Includes index.

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