By 12:25 p.m. on the 51st day of the Waco siege, the entire compound was engulfed in flames.
In the end, 76 people died after the FBI pumped tear gas into the group’s building and the structure burned to the ground. The tragedy was unintentional, Attorney General Janet Reno insisted afterward.
“Today,” Reno said, “was not meant to be D-Day.”
Thirty years later, a three-part Netflix documentary slated for release Wednesday recounts the drama of the mass casualty event. “Waco: American Apocalypse” tells how self-proclaimed prophet David Koresh armed his compound, about 80 miles south of Dallas, and refused to submit to an arrest warrant for alleged weapons violations, resulting in the weeks-long standoff.
The saga gripped the nation during and after the siege. Americans kept abreast of updates through newspaper stories and TV news. Congress held hearings. The Justice Department compiled a report. Eventually, 11 Branch Davidians stood trial.
The group’s beliefs were centered on the idea that the apocalypse was imminent. As the Branch Davidians’ leader in the 1990s, Koresh preached about the Book of Revelation, claimed to be the messiah and engaged in multiple “marriages.” Some children in the community alleged sexual abuse by Koresh, whose birth name was Vernon Howell, but investigations into the matter were inconclusive.
Despite the Waco tragedy’s infamy, details of the siege’s origin remain contested. The two sides disagree on who fired first when Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents advanced on the compound to carry out the warrant against Koresh. The Feb. 28, 1993, gun battle left at least four ATF agents and five Branch Davidians dead.
The government responded with a tremendous show of military force, including tanks and hundreds of law enforcement agents. At first, the ensuing negotiations were successful. More than 20 children and two elderly adults left the compound in the initial six days in exchange for a message from Koresh being broadcast on a certain radio station.
Koresh eventually agreed to surrender himself — and then reneged on his promise. When he talked with FBI negotiators, it was mostly to proselytize.
The FBI also sought to aggravate members into leaving the house by aiming spotlights at it and blaring noise, including rabbits being killed, monks chanting and Nancy Sinatra singing “These Boots are Made for Walkin’,” Branch Davidian Clive Doyle recounts in his memoir, “A Journey to Waco.”
“I got to where I was only getting about an hour or two of sleep every twenty-four hours,” he writes, according to the New Yorker.
On April 19, 1993, FBI agents tried a new tactic: breaking holes in the building with Army vehicles and pumping tear gas inside to compel the group members to leave peacefully. FBI spokesman Bob Ricks said at the time that negotiators had called Steve Schneider, Koresh’s second-in-command, that morning and notified him about the plan. Schneider slammed the phone in response, Ricks said.
The gassing began about 6 a.m. Negotiators announced over a loudspeaker that the vapor was not lethal and that the group members should exit the compound and receive medical care. Instead, Branch Davidians fired on the Army vehicles as they approached, according to the government.
Federal agents and Branch Davidians each blamed the other side for the blaze that broke out shortly after noon. In 1999, the FBI acknowledged that its tear gas was potentially incendiary but said it was used long before the fire started. The agency maintained that the Branch Davidians intentionally torched the buildings.
Wind pushed the flames through the complex quickly that day, and plumes of black smoke filled the air.
The final moments of the standoff were chilling, Ricks told reporters. One woman left the building and then tried to run back in; an FBI agent grabbed her and brought her to safety. A person wearing a gas mask appeared on the second floor of the structure and, as flames broke out, signaled that he did not want help.
Among the 76 dead that day were roughly 25 children, two pregnant women and Koresh. Nine people survived.
In a retrospective review, Edward S.G. Dennis, an assistant attorney general at the Justice Department, wrote that it was unclear whether those killed stayed in the building voluntarily, were held against their will or were shot to prevent their departure.
Koresh, Schneider and some others had succumbed to gunshot wounds, either from themselves or from others, Dennis concluded. Those shots may have been part of a plan to prevent Koresh’s multiple “wives” from being taken away, he said, among other possibilities.
“We may never know what really happened,” Dennis wrote.
Texas state officials had the site bulldozed two weeks after the siege’s deadly conclusion. Dennis Perrotta, director of the Texas Health Department’s epidemiology division, told the Associated Press at the time that the area was “basically an unlicensed solid waste landfill.” More than 100 ATF agents also got to tour the land as part of the process of grieving the loss of their colleagues in the Feb. 28 violence.
Eleven Branch Davidians — a mix of survivors and group members who left the compound before the day of the fire — later stood trial on conspiracy murder charges for the deaths of the agents, but all were acquitted. Seven of the defendants were convicted on lesser charges, and the other four were found not guilty of all charges.
Defense attorneys had painted the siege as an overzealous attack by the federal government on the group members in their own home.
“This jury has slowed down the runaway horse,” defense attorney Tim Evans said after the verdict. “If you don’t say ‘Whoa’ every now and then, we would end up with a paramilitary police state.”
Years later, the site of the standoff is mostly bare, with few signs of the blazing spectacle that once played out there. Just a memorial plaque and one-room chapel stand on the site, welcoming those who want to remember.