In 1990, when he took control of the Branch Davidians religious cult, David Koresh believed he was an angel with a direct channel to God. Disillusioned ex-members accused him retrospectively of offences that brought him under the intense scrutiny of the FBI, ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms), and Texan authorities. The ATF planned to arrest him at Mount Carmel, the cult’s compound outside Waco on February 28 1993, and made no secret of their intentions.
Koresh had long denounced his ‘persecution’ by the government as ‘satanic’ and been dismissed as paranoid. Now the ATF was proving him right. They moved in on the compound’s wooden buildings with around 75 armed agents and three helicopters. Nobody knows who fired first, but four ATF agents died and another 16 were wounded in the hail of bullets between them and the 130 Branch Davidians inside. Several Branch Davidians were hit, including Koresh, whose prestige rose as it became’ public knowledge that he had always predicted that ‘the Apocalypse would begin when the American army attacked Mount Carmel’.
The stand-off lasted 51 days. There were negotiations at presidential level, defections from Koresh’s following, and ‘hostage releases’ from the government’s standpoint, though in fact Koresh just sent out the children who wanted to leave. The world learned just how badly US authorities had handled the situation; and though Koresh didn’t look great either, he was clearly genuine, and genuinely provoked. Finally the FBI went in with tear gas (knowing it was flammable in a house that used oil lamps), tanks, armoured vehicles and automatic weapons. By noon, flames were rising in several places. Nine Branch Davidians ran for it as the wooden structures were engulfed in a white-hot, partly chemical blaze. Koresh died with 79 of his willing followers. For a long time he had prophesied the manner of his end and his ‘immortality’. The FBI and associates fulfilled his prophesy.
When: April 19 1993
Where: Mount Carmel, Waco, Texas, USA
Death toll: 80 (including 23 children under 17 – 14 of whom were fathered by Koresh). The FBI and ATF have always claimed that the disaster was a ‘mass suicide’ because the Branch Davidians started the fires. But the ATF bulldozed the site making it impossible to recover forensic evidence of the fires’ origins or composition, so we’ll never know.
You should know: If it’s possible to say so, the Waco siege had its lighter moments. One man arrived from Florida claiming to be ‘Jesus’s brother’ and wanting a chat. Another claimed he was Jesus himself and would the ATF please let him pass so he could ‘go in and set Koresh straight on who Christ realty was’.