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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.