The Waco Siege: 5 Deadly Facts You Never Knew
Nearly three decades after the deadly siege in Waco, Texas, there are still questions surrounding the raid on the Branch Davidian compound.
The standoff in Waco, Texas, between late Feb. 28 and April 19, 1993, goes by two names, for good reason: the Waco Siege and the Waco Massacre. Depending upon your point of view, both are accurate. It’s a matter of whether you sympathize with law enforcement and military personnel or with the fundamentalist religious sect known as the Branch Davidians.
What occurred at the Mount Carmel Center ranch are well known, at least in broad terms. Indeed, a 2018 TV miniseries dramatized the siege in perhaps as close of a retelling as anyone could hope for.
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That swath of facts include that the Branch Davidians were a radical offshoot of the Christian Seventh Day Adventist church. The sect was led by David Koresh, who was born in 1959 as Vernon Wayne Howell. Koresh allegedly engaged in, and fostered, sexual abuse of children, and brainwashed his followers. In the end, he was accused of preventing Davidians from fleeing the compound, even when remaining meant certain death.
That came for 76 Branch Davidians at the end of the 51-day standoff, when the compound was engulfed in flames. Critics blamed the fire on FBI agents, who shot tear-gas canisters into the compound, but two Department of Justice reports concluded Branch Davidians started the blaze, in at least three locations.
Koresh and his followers began the standoff. They fired upon ATF agents serving a search warrant, under the belief the Davidians were illegally stockpiling weapons. (Indeed, they were.) Four federal agents and six Branch Davidians died in the initial gunfight, on Feb. 28, 1993.
There were no winners in the Waco Siege, only people who died, and others scarred by the catastrophe. Here are five lesser-known details about the deadly standoff to help illustrate what a calamity it was.
1. We Still Don’t Know Who Shot First in the Waco Siege
A gunfight broke out on Feb. 28, 1993, at the compound, 13 miles northeast of Waco, Texas, when ATF agents attempted to serve a warrant to search for illegal weapons. It’s unlikely that federal agents with a legal warrant would begin firing at civilians.
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However, a Davidian called 911 shortly after the gunfire began, claimed members were being shot at, but hadn’t returned fire.
2. The Final Assault Was Clouded by False Information
Frontline reported Attorney General Janet Reno was initially hesitant to allow federal agents to use overly aggressive tactics. That was largely because Reno was concerned Davidians would use children as human shields. It was claimed early on that Reno changed her mind after the FBI said David Koresh was physically and sexually abusing children during the standoff.
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However, the 1993 Department of Justice report determined there was no direct evidence that Koresh abused children during the siege. The DOJ noted “historical evidence” of Koresh’s sexual and physical abuse children. However, the Branch Davidian leader had been shot during the Feb. 28 standoff, and “probably lacked the physical ability to continue his abuse.” That said, the government was worried about the compound’s deteriorating sanitary conditions, which posed a serious health risk to children. There was also concern that the Davidians might commit mass suicide, particularly if something happened to Koresh. However, the FBI received conflicting, yet credible, information on that matter.
The same report clarified the FBI didn’t exaggerate sexual-abuse claims in an effort to “sell” Reno on using tear gas. An FBI representative reportedly made a single misstatement about continued abuse. However, that “did not materially influence the Attorney General’s decision.”
3. Three Fires Erupted on April 19
Independent investigators determined that at least three fires broke out around the same time on April 19. Skeptics pointed to the timing as evidence that the fires were started by FBI tear gas canisters.
However, the fires were found to be set inside the compound, according to both the 1993 DOJ report and a 2000 special counsel investigation. That is, that they were started by the Branch Davidians themselves.
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“It is not clear whether the decision to set the fire was a unanimous decision of the entire group,” the 1993 report stated, “or whether some people were held hostage or were shot to prevent their escape from the fire. A number of children were shot to death.”
4. Most Branch Davidians Didn’t Die From Gunfire
Despite a weeks-long siege, climaxing with the final dramatic assault, the leading cause of death of people inside the Mount Carmel Center compound was smoke inhalation.
According to Frontline, the fires that ravaged the building did not fully cool for more than a week, after which a full examination could be conducted. That’s when government investigators found some 75 bodies inside, about two-thirds of whom died as a result of smoke.
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However, David Koresh, his deputy Steve Schneider and several other Branch Davidians died from gunshot wounds. However, the the government acknowledged the circumstances of those deaths were unclear: “It’s not known whether these individuals committed suicide or were shot by others.”
That said, former Davidian Dana Okimoto told federal investigators in May 1993 that “Koresh’s biggest fear was that someone would take his wives away.” Rather than allowing her to be taken, the sect leader thought she should kill herself. If she couldn’t do that, Okimoto said, one of Koresh’s “mighty men” — his inner circle, who enforced discipline — should do it.
Therefore, the shootings could have been carrying out that plan. Or else, the government speculated, some of the Davidians might have been shot to prevent their escape from the compound. Ultimately, the report concluded, “We may never know what really happened.”
5. The Waco Siege Inspired the Oklahoma City Bombing
On April 19, 1995, two years after the end of the Waco Siege, a truck blew up at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. It remains the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in American history.
The perpetrators, anti-government extremist Timothy McVeigh and his accomplice, Terry Nichols, were inspired, in part, the 1993 Waco Siege. McVeigh spent days observing the standoff at the Branch Davidian compound from a point about three miles away from Mount Carmel. There’s even video footage of McVeigh, then a 24-year-old Army veteran, at the closest spot to the compound where the public could gather, and “just barely” witness the events of the siege. While there, McVeigh sold bumper stickers with pro-gun and anti-government slogans.