Thirty years ago, officers from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) attempted to execute a search warrant at a compound outside Waco, Texas, belonging to the Branch Davidians, a religious cult led by David Koresh.
What followed was the biggest gunfight on American soil since the Civil War, claiming the lives of four ATF agents and six Branch Davidians. Following a 51-day siege that became the biggest news story in the world, a massive fire engulfed the compound, after which 76 more cult members were dead, including Koresh.
The infamous Waco incident of 1993 captivated television news viewers from around the world at the time, and unnervingly, its memory continues to resonate. Timothy McVeigh cited the incident as a motivator for his 1995 Oklahoma City bombing attacks, and it has helped spark far-right American militia movements that remain active today.
Waco: American Apocalypse, a three-part docuseries now streaming on Netflix, coincides with the 30th anniversary of the siege. This is what it was like to experience the tragic event, in the words of the survivors and authorities who were there.
Suspicious Behavior Leads to Federal Attention
The Branch Davidians are a religious group that was founded based upon a prophecy of the Second Coming of Christ and an imminent apocalypse. By the early 1990s, Koresh was leader of the Branch Davidians sect at the Mount Carmel Center outside Waco, telling his followers that the Lord willed them to build an “Army of God.”
Koresh had as many as 20 so-called “wives” and was accused of having sex with minors. “It’s sick, and it’s perverted, and yeah, it’s one of the things about David Koresh that probably bothers me the most,” former Branch Davidian David Bunds told ABC News. “My position now is that David Koresh was a pedophile. I wish I would have done something.”
The ATF obtained warrants after suspecting Koresh and his followers were stockpiling illegal weapons, particularly after obtaining shipping and delivery records that showed them obtaining large amounts of gunpowder and heavy aluminum that could be used to make illegal grenades or reload spent rifle cartridges.
In his 2018 book Waco: A Survivor’s Story, Branch Davidian survivor David Thibodeau denied they were stockpiling illegal weapons and said the purchases were for gun shows in which they sold weapons and gear. “Our involvement with firearms had more to do with business than self-defense,” Thibodeau wrote, calling the gun business “a good source of cash for the community.”
Raid Attempt Turns Into Gunfight
On February 28, 1993, the ATF attempted to raid the Mount Carmel Center and serve its warrants. A four-hour gunfight erupted that killed six of Koresh’s followers and four ATF agents. Both sides accused the other of having fired the first shots.
Koresh claimed the agents fired first, but journalists who were present at the scene later testified that the first shots came from inside the compound, according to The Dallas Morning News. “They told the people to come out of the house, and those inside the house immediately started firing,” said a local TV news reporter, who claimed the agents then returned fire.
“I recall stepping out of the truck, and almost immediately I started hearing pops. You know, ‘Pop pop pop,’” ATF agent David Elder said in a 2018 article. He also defended the agency’s actions: “Everyone thinks that we’re monsters, that we attacked innocent people. We didn’t drive up there and start shooting and killing people. We responded with deadly force because deadly force was used against us.”
51-Day FBI Siege
Following the shoot-out, the FBI took command and began what would be a 51-day siege of the Mount Carmel Center. Agents communicated with Koresh and other cult members inside by telephone.
Thibodeau described the inside of the compound during those days as “very much chaotic,” with Branch Davidians rationing food and water. “The FBI was in control, totally, of the information that the world got,” he told the Today show, “and so when you’re not able to respond to things on a daily basis that people are saying about you, it becomes very frustrating.”
An FBI negotiation team led by Gary Noesner helped get 35 people out of the compound during the first half of the siege, including 21 children. However, Noesner said some within the FBI supported continued negotiations, while others advocated for more aggressive action.
“In addition to conflict inside the compound, [there] was conflict within the FBI,” Noesner told the Today show. “There was part of the FBI that wanted to force them out; to tighten the noose, as it were; to exert increasing amounts of pressure.” Noesner was dismissed after 25 days, and no other Branch Davidians left the center for the remainder of the siege.
A Final Assault and Fatal Fire
After being told conditions were deteriorating, then–U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno approved the use of tear gas to flush the Branch Davidians from their compound. On April 19, the FBI launched tear gas into the building for a period of six hours, after which a fire broke out in the compound.
“I could hear some of the ones that were further back into the building behind me screaming. I thought, ‘Nobody’s getting out of there now,’” Branch Davidian survivor Clive Doyle said. He and Thibodeau escaped by leaping through a hole in the building created by one of the government’s tanks, after which they were arrested.
Ultimately, 76 Branch Davidians died, including 25 children, two pregnant women, and Koresh, who shot himself in the head. Conflicting claims were made about the source of the fire, causing rampant speculation for years before Reno appointed U.S. Senator John C. Danforth as special counsel in 1999 to investigate the matter.
Danforth’s commission concluded that members of the cult intentionally started the fire after it analyzed recordings from FBI microphones that captured Koresh and other Branch Davidians discussing these plans. Additionally, an independent investigation by University of Maryland engineering professors concluded the fire was deliberately set in at least three points of origin.
“These children, they’re innocent, they don’t know,” ATF’s Elder said. “These children being killed, that didn’t have to happen. David Koresh is the cause of why it all happened.”
How to Watch Waco: American Apocalypse
Waco: American Apocalypse is now streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer for the documentary series:
Colin McEvoy joined the Biography.com staff in 2023, and before that had spent 16 years as a journalist, writer, and communications professional. He is the author of two true crime books: Love Me or Else and Fatal Jealousy. He is also an avid film buff, reader, and lover of great stories.