Tragedy in Waco

Time Magazine/May 3, 1993
Reported by Michael Riley and Richard Woodbury/Waco and Julie Johnson and Elaine Shannon/Washington

"His name was Death, and Hell followed with him"

Revelation 6:8

"Oh, My God, They're Killing Themselves!"

-FBI agent Bob Ricks

The sun didn't blacken, nor the moon turn red, but the world did come to an end, just as their prophet had promised. The End drove up to their doorstep in a tank, spitting gas, fulfilling prophecies. And if anyone wants to harm them, says the Book of Revelation, fire pours from their mouths and consumes their foes.

Buzzards circled overhead and the wind blew hard on the day the Branch Davidians died. Before the sun came up, state troopers went door to door to the houses near the compound, telling people to stay inside, there might be some noise. Over their loudspeakers, the tired negotiators called one last time for David Koresh and his followers to surrender peacefully. Then they got on the phone and told him exactly where the rear gas was coming, so he could move the children away. The phone came sailing out the front door. They will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them.

The pounding began a few minutes after 6 a.m., when an armored combat engineer vehicle with a long, insistent steel nose started prodding a corner of the building. Shots rang out from the windows the moment agent began pumping in tear gas. A second CEV joined in, buckling walls, breaking windows, nudging, nudging, as though moving the building would move those inside. "This is not an assault!" agent Byron Sage cried over the loudspeakers. "Do not shoot. We are not entering your compound." Ambulances waited a mile back; the local hospital, Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center, was on alert. But on one was supposed to get hurt. "You are responsible for your own actions." Agent called out. "Come out now and you will not be harmed." Do not fear what you are about to suffer…Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.

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, even days if they could manage to change the filters. Once equipped, people went about their chores; women did the laundry, cleaned, or read the Bible in their rooms, even as a tank crashed through the front door, past the piano, the potato sacks and the propane tank barricaded against it.

Once the shooting started, the agent abandoned their plan to target the gas where it was least likely to hurt the children. The vehicles exhaled clouds through the entire building, punching hold after hole through the walls as the rounds of bullets rained down. Fleeing the gas, women and children clustered in the center of the second floor, from which there was not exit. Then suddenly the firing stopped, and a white flag emerged from the front door. "Outstanding!" thought the leader of the Hostage Rescue Team. "It's gonna work." Koresh's chief lieutenant, Steve Schneider, retrieved the telephone, and the agents felt a moment of hope. But the firing began again. Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth.

A few minutes past noon, FBI snipers say they saw a man in a gas mask cupping his hands, as though lighting something. Sage grabbed the microphone. "Don't do this to those people," he pleaded over the loudspeaker. "This is not the way to end it." He called out to the cult members: If you can't see, walk toward the loudspeaker, follow the voice. An explosion rocked the compound, then another and another as ammunition stores blew up. The building shuddered, like the earthquake Koresh had foretold.

A short, rumpled lawyer named Danny Coulson watched it all on a TV monitor from the "submarine," the FBI's windowless command center in Washington. His FBI supervisors and Attorney General Janet Reno had been there following the progress all morning. Coulson's eyes were tired, black underneath, but he was hopeful by nature and still thought the plan would work. He founded the HRT, and he had been here before. When the first flames came, the room went dead silent. "Well, he's burning the arms," Coulson thought, "and he'll walk out and say, 'Prove I had automatic weapons.'" Then he waited for people to come pouring out.

The phone range in the command center; No one is coming out. All Coulson could do was watch, and think about the children: "The strongest instinct is a mother's instinct for a child." Then word came from Waco that one or two people had been spotted outside the building and that agents, protected only by their helmets, body armor and green flight suits of fire-resistant Nomex, were leaving the safety of their armored vehicles and going after them.

Up in a back room in her gas mask, Ruth Riddle was clutching her Bible when she felt the heat rising around her. She worried that her yellow plastic sandals might melt, so she changed into running shoes and looked for a way out.

She jumped down from a hole punched in the wall and stumbled forward, smoke coming out of her clothes. An agent spotted her, climbed out of his armored vehicle and ran to her, disappearing into a black plume. By the time he reached her, she was trying to get back inside with her friends and struggled to fight him off, apparently determined to find the way to heaven through hell. "Where are the kids? What did you do with them?" the agent yelled, but she just shook her head and said nothing as he dragged her to safety. And in those days people will seek death but not find it; they will long to die, but death will fly from them.

A man appeared on the roof, his clothes aflame, rolling in pain. Agents moved toward him, but he waved them off. He fell off the roof, and the agents ran over, tore off his burning clothes and got him safely inside the armored vehicle.

By now 30-m.p.h. prairie winds had sent the flames gulping through the compound. The fire raced through the big parlor, feeding on the wooden benches and the stacked of Bibles kept by the door. The chapel crackled as flames consumed hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of equipment from the messiah's rock-'n'-roll band and 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 crematorium.

The agents watching held out one last hope. As the flames rose higher and higher, they remembered the school bus. A social worker sent in months before to check on the safety of the children had been shown an old bus, stripped of its seats, buried underground, to be used as a bunker. Maybe the children were safely sealed inside, agents thought. So the moment the faded red pumper trucks pulled in, the team leader grabbed his gas mask and his M-16 and led 16 men around the blaze to a concrete pit filled with thigh-deep water fouled with human waste and floating body parts. They waded forward through pitch darkness, saw rats swimming past them by the flashlights strapped to the tips of their rifles. They reached a door at the end that they feared might be booby-trapped; they crashed through anyway, into the tunnel that led to the bus. The air inside was sweet and cool, free of gas. But there was no one inside.

By the time the fire fighters went into the compound, only ashes and bones were left, and questions.

When it was all over, the questions belonged to everyone, every pundit and prophet and armchair analyst. Did it have to end this way? Did the feds just get restless and vengeful at the crazy people who had killed four of their colleagues? Were the Davidians in fact intending to come out in a matter of days? Above all, did the cult members really set out to burn themselves and their children alive? Or did the tanks knock down their camp lanterns, burst open the propane, accidentally tossing a spark onto the tinder? A mass suicide? A mass homicide? A ghastly accident?

In the days and long night before the finale, the questions belonged to Janet Reno. A month into her job, Reno confronted disaster she had done nothing to create. The drama in the Texas prairie began as she was still standing in the wings, mourning her mother and awaiting the Senate's confirmation. Reno grew up in the swamps where alligators still wander - her mother used to wrestle them - and for 15 years she was in charge of enforcing laws in a city where lawbreaking is a spectator sport. But nothing could have quite prepared her for the choices she faced that fateful week.

The FBI came to her on Monday way their plan, laid out in a wine-colored briefing book. That started a week of meetings, briefing, phone calls and more meetings in which Reno probed the motives and methods the bureau had laid out.

The official had come to believe that time was no longer on their side. For one thing, the team leader told TIME's Elaine Shannon, "we had run out of other plans." To an impatient audience, it may have appeared that all the officials had done for 51 days was stand and wait and watch. But members of the HRT especially the snipers, had been on constant alert and were wearing down. "My very first concern was that the Davidians would exit the compound with a child in one hand and an AK-47 in the other," Coulson says. "The only civilian unit that can eliminate the subject without eliminating the child are HRT snipers. They can hit a quarter-inch target at 200 meters." That meant, of course, that they had any number of chances to take out Koresh. But the agency's rules of engagement forbid them to fire on anyone if they are not directly threatened themselves.

The snipers stood shifts around the clock at observation posts that were well within the range of Koresh's .50-cal. Sharpshooting rifles and M-60 machine guns. "All our positions were chip shots for them," says Coulson, "an easy head shot." The snipers kept their rifle scopes trained on the compound's windows watching as they were fortified for tripod-mounted machine guns that could be fired by a man lying on the floor. "I don't know if anybody has ever spent any time staring through a scope," says one agent, "but I did it for 15 or 20 minutes, and it is terribly disorienting. These people had been there for 50 days."

The cult leader had broken one deal after another, officials reminded Reno. "There were never any real negotiations," says Jeffrey Jamar, the beefy FBI agent in charge on the ground. "We stayed in touch to avoid provocation, but everything was done on his time - he was in strict control." Negotiators had learned that Koresh had a particular dread of jail, a fear of being raped. "He had all the wives, food and liquor he wanted," Coulson says. "Inside, he's God. Outside, he's an inmate on trial for his life. What was he going to do?

They had tried to break him down, switching tactics midway through the siege. At first they were respectful. That approach got 37 people out, including 21 children, before it stopped working. Then their tone switched to disdain, even mockery, and the harassment campaign of lights and noises began. "It was not there just to irritate them and make their lives miserable," said agent Byron Sage. "It was to keep them on guard, to keep them so they weren't at a fine honed edge."

To make their tactical case, officials had to depend on their intelligence from inside the compound, but as Koresh grew more paranoid it was harder to gather. The ATF had an undercover agent inside before the original raid, but his shooting skills on the target range may have aroused suspicion. After negotiating to send in milk magazines and a typewriter, they tucked in tiny listening devises as well to help them monitor Koresh's moods. But cult members were said to have found the bugs and destroyed them.

So they had to rely more on the hours of conversations and the letters Koresh occasionally dictated to be sent out to the besieging forces. The FBI Brought these to a team of experts they recruited, who drew a psychological portrait of an ever more menacing figure, one who believed himself invincible.

Over the weekend of April 10, Koresh sent the FBI two letters from God, which TIME has obtained, neatly penned on lavender notepaper by one of his 19 wives. "I AM your God," he wrote, "and you will bow under my feet. Do you think you have the power to stop my will?" The ominous letter persuaded the psychologists that Koresh would come out only on his own terms, probably violent ones. "It is hard to believe that Koresh will abdicate his godhood," the experts concluded, "for a limited notoriety and time behind bars."

It seemed at times that Koresh was playing with them. His mother had hired a fancy lawyer for him, and just as the feds were deciding they had to move, Koresh was deciding they had to move, Koresh was deciding that he was eager to talk. Dick DeGuerin is a renowned defender of infamous Texans, a lean, boyish-looking ex-prosecutor known among defense lawyers as "Clint Eastwood" for rescuing high-profile figures from impossible fixes. He has a gift for winning his clients' trust, and it seemed to be working with Koresh. They talked for hours inside the compound, sharing chicken a' la king and apple juice and macadamia nuts, for which Koresh had developed a taste during his days recruiting followers in Hawaii. DeGuerin told his client that the government did not have much of a case against him - an impression the negotiators did not contradict. What they heard from the lawyer helped convince them that the Davidians wanted to come out. All the FBI needed was to open the door and yank.

A frontal assault was out of the question. They suspected that the entire place was booby-trapped; they knew the sect had powerful weapons and night-vision scopes, sentries guarded the windows around the clock, and whenever agents approached in tanks, cult members held up the children in the windows. The strategists talked about using a water cannon, but rejected the idea. First, they didn't have an armored fire truck. Second, the blast of water was as strong as a wrecking ball and might cause the building to collapse on the children inside. Finally, water would destroy evidence.

The idea, instead was to pump in the gas and create enough chaos to distract anyone intent on either firing back or orchestrating a mass suicide. Perhaps those who were wavering would come out.

That was the plan FBI Director William Sessions and his top deputies put together for Reno on Monday morning. She wanted to see everything asked hundred of questions: Why go now? What is he likely to do? Is this the best way to go? On Wednesday night she called in members of the Army's elite Delta Force to ask their opinions. Her questions always came back to the children. FBI officials explained that the longer the siege lasted, the more the children would suffer. "Children are like hostages," Koresh had told one negotiator, "because they're too young to make decisions."

And indeed he seemed prepared to treat them that way. When negotiators asked him to send out videotapes to show the youngsters were safe. Koresh was happy to oblige. The tactic worked brilliantly for him. Agents were wrenched by the pictures, and even more profoundly engaged after Koresh began putting the children on the telephone. "Are you coming to kill me?" a tiny voice would ask. "Those kids' faces, you can still see them," says FBI agent Bob Ricks. "They are precious, innocent children, controlled by a madman."

Koresh would use food as a weapon, even on his own children. The cult had stockpiled enough Army rations to last for months, but Koresh dispensed them all. His favorites usually had the first claim, like the members of his rock band, and his Mighty Men, the term referring to the warriors who fought under King David in the Old Testament. So for the ultimate task, the fight to death, the warriors would be fed. The weak, the vacillating and the helpless would grow weaker and weaker, unable to split off if given the chance.

Reno continued to press about the dangers of exposing people to gas. Anesthetic gases might knock people out, but there was no guarantee that they would wake up, ever, especially the small children. Strong men would be knocked out last, or not at all. The FBI brought in a leading specialist on the toxicology of tear gas, whom Reno debriefed for hours. She approved the use of tear gas only after being assured that the form the FBI was using was not permanently harmful, carcinogenic or a possible cause of birth defects.

The idea, officials said, was not to provoke one major showdown, but to gradually increase the pressure. Even as the debate in Washington progressed, the Hostage Rescue Team was sending in Abrams tanks to close in on the compound, closer and closer. Anything lighter, Koresh had threatened to blow "40 feet in the air." Then the FBI began removing the fence. "Everyone on scene said that's the most provocative thing we can do," says an official. "If we touch that fence, we stand a chance that there will be some kind of violent response. So we thought long and hard. But we removed it, and there was no action." The only rise the FBI managed to get out of Koresh was last Sunday, when an armored vehicle towed his previous black Camaro to make room for the next day's attack.

Above all Reno needed to know how Koresh would react to being pushed and whether the others inside would follow him, even unto death. Koresh held over them all the power of the Apocalypse; he was the Lamb of Revelation, who alone could open the seven seals and foresee the end of the world. FBI agents made some effort to get a handle on the theology at work, but scholars have been trying to explain these passages for centuries with little success. Among those they consulted was Phillip Arnold, a specialist in apocalyptic faiths whom Koresh respected. He was happy to serve as theological bait, a means of helping Koresh get his message out to the world and thereby bring about a peaceful resolution.

In the crucial sixth chapter of Revelation, Koresh found his timetable. The bloody raid on Feb. 28 signaled the opening of the fifth seal. The Bible instructed that the "rest a little longer, until the number would be complete both of their fellow servants and of their brothers and sisters, who were soon to be killed an they themselves had been killed." Which merely meant that after a short time had passed, their time to die would be upon them. So Arnold and his colleague James Tabor from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte worked to sell Koresh on a less threatening interpretation.

On April 8 the theologians went on a Dallas radio show and tried to persuade Koresh that the prophecy had not yet been fulfilled. They dwelt on a verse in Chapter 10: "You must prophesy again about many peoples and nations and languages and kings. "That was probably where Koresh got the idea of writing his own explanation of the meaning of the seven seals. His final letter was in sharp contrast to the earlier fire and brimstone. This one was addressed to DeGuerin and dwelt more on distribution rights and other bookkeeping matters. "I hope to finish this as soon as possible and to stand before man to answer any and all questions regarding my actions," he wrote. On the night before the immolation, the FBI sent in milk for the children and typewriter ribbons for the author.

Indeed, the desire to spread the message was so strong that it helped persuade agents that Koresh did not mean to end his life. Reno had to balance conflicting reports about whether the Davidians were prepared for a mass suicide, the one finale she hoped to avoid at all costs. Four times negotiators asked if Koresh planned to kill himself, and four times he denied them. "If I wanted to commit suicide," he told them. "I would have done that a long time ago." Agents pointed out that Koresh had backed away from the brink before. On March 2, when he was supposed to surrender, he arranged to strap grenades to his body, come out and blow himself up in front of TV cameras. All the preparations were made, he kissed the children goodbye in the chapel-and then, at the last moment, "chickened out," Ricks said.

But there was also plenty of evidence pointing the other way. Fully a year ago the U.S. embassy in Australia, where many cult members had lived, sent Washington a cable about the cult members had lived, sent Washington a cable about the cult, warning that the Davidians would never allow themselves to be taken alive. As members came out of Ranch Apocalypse, they confirmed the planning; a 12-year-old girl told the audience on the Phil Donahue show how they were taught to put the barrel of a gun in their mouth. The feds took the possibilities seriously: the collected enough anticyanide kits to provide a lifesaving dose for every child and a few of the adults, and the medics of the HT kept them at the ready at the forward command post.

Reno finally reached her decision on Saturday night. The Attorney General convened top aides in her fifth-floor-conference room and demanded that the FBI once again justify its operation. "Is this the best way," she asked, to prod Koresh without aggravating the situation?" What was the risk of losing more lives both inside and outside the compound? She shook her head in horror as an FBI official offered a graphic description of human waster being thrown outside in pail. There was some discussion of child abuse, at which point Reno asked the FBI, "You mean, slapping them around?" They said yes, and talked about the "ongoing pattern of young girls in there being sexually abused." At around 7:15 p.m. she approved the operation. By 7:40 Saturday night Reno went home.

The following night she called the President and briefed him on the plan. They talked for about 15 minutes, as Clinton asked about the timing, the possible pitfalls and whether the military had been consulted. "I said that if she thought it was the right thing to do," he said later, "that she should proceed and I would support it."

In the morning as the assault began, reporters asked Clinton if he knew what was happening. In fact, Clinton had been briefed periodically on the progress in Waco from the start, by Reno's predecessor Stuart Gerson and by her deputy Webster Hubbell, a close friend of the Clintons'. "I was aware of it," he said. "I think the Attorney General made the decision." Pushed further, he added, "I knew it was going to be done, but the decisions were entirely theirs."

Then he vanished. At about 1 p.m., after the fire broke out, White House communications director George Stephanopoulos kept a safe distance from the issues at his regular daily briefing for reporters: "It's a decision by the Attorney General and the FBI." Like everyone else, the White House spent the afternoon waiting and watching to see if anyone might survive. But after the smoke cleared, Clinton, never camera shy, remained in the shadows. The White House released a statement one paragraph long. "The law-enforcement agencies involved in the Waco Siege recommended the course of action pursued today," it said. "I told the Attorney General to do what she thought was right, and I stand by that decision."

While a normal politician's instinct, a disaster burns around them, is to run for cover, Reno drew herself up tall, 6 ft. 2 in. tall, and went on national television to say, The buck stops with me, I take full responsibility, it was my decision. I approved the plans, until journalists and pundits and pols were breathless at the audacity of it, an act of political self-immolation. She was everywhere on the evening news and the talk shows, declaring that after hard thought she had reached the best judgment she could that "based on what we know now, obviously it was wrong."

She lost her temper only when reporters suggested that she was covering for the President. "I don't do spin stuff," she said, "and I'm not distancing anybody from anything." But by the time Larry King came round, she still hadn't heard from her boss. "They kept missing each other," was the official White House explanation. The next day Stephanopoulos began to retreat from the retreat as best he could. Clinton rejected calls for Reno to resign just because "some religious fanatics murdered themselves," and call for investigation at Justice and the Treasury Department. The House Judiciary Committee announced it would hold hearings as well.

At the scene of the carnage, forensic experts tiptoed through still smoking ruins, amid popping ammunition and exploding cans of fruit. They removed one soft, crumbling body after another, laying then in body bags side by side for removal in a refrigerated truck. Tiny orange flags fluttered everywhere that bodies had been found-nine of them clustered at the central cinder-block bunker, with a weapon still visible mounted on top. On the main flagpole, where Koresh liked to fly his Star of David flag, the Texas and ATF flags flew at half staff.

Throughout the week family members issued scorching assessments of the FBI's performance. "There were law abiding, God-fearing people in there," said Koresh's mother Bonnie Haldeman. "They didn't hurt anybody." The most damaging blasts came from those who had made it out of the compound. Survivors spoke out, either on their own or through DeGuerin and Schneider's lawyer Jack Zimmerman, to challenge the official version of what happened. "There was never any suicide plan," protested Renos Avraam, a 28-year-old London native who had lived in the compound for more than a year, "and never any order to destroy the compound. We intended to come out."

The survivors tell a harrowing story of the final hours. At noon, Avraam told his lawyer, "many of us were toward the front when a tank ran into a corner of the building and it basically collapsed. Then someone shouted, 'A first has started! The black smoke was intense. I couldn't see." Some speculated that the tanks punctured the propane tank barricading the door, sending flames speeding through a storage room full of gallon fuel containers for the lanterns, lighting the hay bales and other debris. Children and others in the outside rooms fled them for interior areas, but within minutes these were ablaze too. David Thibodeau, one of the Might Men, told his mother that he tried to run upstairs to get to the children, but the way was blocked. "People had not time to get out. The fire spread very fast," says Avraam, who escaped by diving out a window.

FBI agents who watched the hideous finale from ground zero adamantly dismiss the notion that they somehow started the inferno. "I saw three fires almost simultaneously," insists Sage. "There's no question but that it was not started by the tanks in front of building." That ridiculous. I saw the tanks at different points from where the fires were." He, like others, had no choice but to stand and watch. "I can't tell you what was going through my hears," he says. "A combination of anguish, reflection and absolute anger for David Koresh. Because the bottom line here is that with complete and unthinking malice he had murdered all those people."

Officials at Justice braced themselves for the backbiting. Privately, counterterrorist experts in other branches made no bones about what they would have done differently. "I wouldn't have pumped gas in there," said one official, "and I wouldn't have called then first." Others charged that the mistake was not only in tactics, but in attitude. "This wasn't a normal hostage situation," aid a Justice official. "Not only were they there, they were willing to do anything for this person." A congressional aide put it differently: They acted like they thought they were talking to another bank robber. Instead, they were talking to someone who was dealing in a parallel universe."

Critics were especially blistering on the subject of the FBI's impatience. "When you look at this, I think you not only need to understand the psychology of cults but you need to understand the psychology of law enforcement as well," said a congressional aide. "They had been challenged, more than four of their agents had been killed, there was the day-in, day-out appearance of impotence in a profession in which control is so important.

Theologian Arnold laments that the FBI did not take underlying religious issues more seriously. The pull of faith was so strong that some Branch Davidians who escaped wished they had instead been consumed by the flames. "They took that to be a big joke, all that talk about the seven seals," he says. "The seven seals was his language, and if you didn't speak that language, there was no way of showing him what he had to do."

But Jamar and other agents scoff at the notion that either scholars or family members could have succeeded in getting anyone out. "We could have spent seven months allowing this all to happen." As for the Bible experts, "they could have argued religion with him for hours and it wouldn't have done any good. You going to talk someone out of being the Messiah? It's a lot to give up."

In the end, even the fiercest critics could not deny that it was Koresh who placed 25 children in harm's way, who preyed on people who were weak and lonely and hungry for certainty. Certainty he gave them, and abundantly. He was certain of his special insight into the deepest mysteries of faith, certain of an afterlife that promised glory for those who had suffered for their souls. If he is right about that, and there is any justice in it, Koresh has not seen the last of the flames. And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.

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