20 years after Waco: Like a scene from “Apocalypse Now”
Part three of a four-part series
At sunrise on the 51st day of the Mount Carmel standoff, David Koresh received a wake-up call from FBI negotiators. He was told that there would be activity, but it should not be interpreted as a precursor to an entry.
This was true — no imminent entry was planned for the April 19th — because the plan was to breach walls and introduce tear gas into specific sections of the compound.
The tactics were intended to put pressure on the holdouts by using chemical agents for area denial.
The Apocalypse, Now
Koresh was asked once again to surrender and allow his followers to leave, but he refused.
The FBI did not suspect it at the time, but the maneuvers at 0600 hours marked the beginning of the end of the Branch Davidian Sect.
Dawn brought the determined clanking of armored vehicles and the “Whup, Whup, Whup,” of helicopters. This, combined with the continually-blaring loudspeakers creating a panorama reminiscent of a scene from “Apocalypse Now.”
A synopsis of the messages sent over loudspeakers was:
1. We want you to surrender
2. This is not an assault
3. We are not coming in
Doing the maneuvering were nine Bradley Fighting Vehicles. Grenadiers were firing M651 CS tear gas, as well as Ferret rounds, into targeted areas.
Five M728 Military Combat Engineer vehicles — each mounted with special booms — were punching large holes into walls to enable the delivery of tear gas. Approximately 100 canisters of non-burning tear gas were fired into the wooden structure, during the early morning hours.
In a press conference held years later in 1999, the FBI revealed that in addition to the non-burning canisters two pyrotechnic rounds were fired at a cement bunker. These were utilized 1000 yards away from the wooden facility and because of time and distance could not have contributed to the starting of the tragic fire.
Inside Mount Carmel
The Davidians, who had prepared for Armageddon, broke out their tear gas masks and put them on. They still refused to send out the children, and instead chose to cover them with wet blankets in an attempt to minimize the effects of tear gas.
The large holes punched into the walls of the compound were intended to be used to facilitate the delivery of CS. They were also meant to serve as egress for Davidians wishing to surrender as well as ingress for entry teams if it became necessary to enter.
The copious amounts of CS, which were pumped into the facility, were greatly neutralized because of an unaccounted for consequence of the breaches. The gusting 31 mph wind blowing across the plains Northeast of Waco on that day served to whip the CS around and out of the holes punched into the facility.
Koresh and his followers did not believe the FBI when it promised that an incursion was not imminent.
Throughout the morning, FBI surveillance tapes picked up scattered conversations among the Davidians, who were spreading accelerants about the facility.
At one point the FBI recorded the following exchange:
“The fuel has to go all around to get started.”
A second male replied:
“Well, there are two cans here, if that’s poured soon.”
At 1207 hours — six hours after the introduction of tear gas — three fires at three different locations started simultaneously. Shots were heard from inside the building, as the fire spread. A total of nine Davidians choosing life over death limped and stumbled out of the building into the arms of FBI SWAT officers outside.
All others perished.
Firefighting units were not on stand-by at the scene so they were summoned after the fire had started, but did not arrive on scene until 1222 hours. They were held back, because by this time not only was the entire structure engulfed by the flames, but there had also been some explosions along with the popping of ammunition that made any approach by fire fighters a risk outweighing any possible rewards.
Seventy-six Davidians died on April 19th 1993. Most died from asphyxiation. Some died when the structure caved in on them and others died from gunshot wounds.
Janet Reno and the on-scene commander — FBI Special Agent Jeffrey Jamar — had hoped to prevent a Jonestown-type mass-murder-suicide, where cult members either willingly took or were forced to take cyanide laced “Kool-Aid.”
No one perceived — nor did they prepare for — a self-inflicted death by raging inferno.
Later, arson investigation experts, after considering the fact that there had been nearly simultaneous ignition of three fires at three different locations as well as a presence of accelerants at each of these sites, concluded Koresh and his followers started the fires.
The FBI surveillance tapes supported the determination that arson was the cause of the fires.
Eight of the Branch Davidians who survived the fire at Mount Carmel were eventually convicted on charges ranging from voluntary manslaughter to weapons violations. Seven of them were sentenced to 40-year prison terms.
An eighth received a five year sentence. In consideration for her testimony as a government witness still another Davidian received a three-year sentence.
The Body Count
Six Davidians died on February 28th.
Seventy-six more died on April 19th.
Law enforcement suffered no casualties on April 19th, but suffered four killed and 20 wounded during the action on February 28th.
David Koresh could have prevented this tragic ending by stepping out of the door with his hands in the air on February 28th.
Instead, he and his adult followers chose to resist the lawful warrants violently. The children he refused to allow to come out had no choice in the matter.
Vernon Howell — also known as David Koresh — first prophesied then orchestrated the fire that caused the death of so many.
The “Sinful Messiah” died for his sins.
Sadly, 81 other souls died while either standing with him, or standing against him.
Coming one week from today: 20 years after Waco: Part Four... the lessons of Waco.