The February 28, 1993 raid on the Branch Davidians at their headquarters in Mount Carmel Center east of Waco, Texas is still one of the most controversial police operations in the United States. That Sunday, around a hundred officers from the ATF, the American Tobacco, Alcohol and Firearms Agency, stormed the huge building complex on the approximately 30-hectare property. They have a search warrant and want to arrest the leader of the cult, David Koresh, whose real name is Vernon Howell, for illegally converting semi-automatic weapons into fully automatic weapons. According to authorities, since October 1991, Koresh has stockpiled nearly $200,000 worth of weapons and explosives and is preparing for a military-style operation. "We assumed 40 to 50 machine guns and 100 hand grenades," recalls a former ATF special agent in a Netflix documentary. There were also rumors that he sexually abused children. The problem: Shortly before the raid, Koresh finds out about the upcoming operation and the element of surprise is gone. What follows is the largest firefight in the United States since the Civil War. "Then all hell broke loose," recalls a former cult member. As in an action film, a huge hail of bullets begins, which lasts around 40 minutes. Outside the federal police officers, inside the sect members. Their leader dials 911 and asks them to stop as there are women and children in the building.
David Koresh, then 33, captivated his followers with a combination of bizarre interpretations of the Bible and his charismatic personality. Before 1979, according to a friend, he was a "long-haired, fun-loving guitar guy" who smoked weed occasionally and never had any trouble with the police. After a nervous breakdown, he is said to have had hallucinations and from then on believes he is talking to God. In 1981 his path leads to Mount Carmel. Koresh thinks he is the returned Christ who is supposed to herald the end of the world. His teaching is based on biblical revelation, which speaks of the Last Judgment and eternal life. The followers consider his proclamations to be as important as the Bible. One day, a power struggle escalates between him and the son of the deceased leader of the Branch Davidians. A shootout ensues, and Koresh and his followers are charged with attempted murder. However, the jury cannot make a decision and so there is no verdict.
In 1987 Koresh took over the leadership of the Davidian sect. He later marries the 14-year-old daughter of a cult member and says God told him to procreate with the group's women and raise an "army for God." At first he only takes single girls and women, later he also separates couples and makes the women pregnant, while the rest of the men have to live celibately. "We were all married to David," says a former follower. "For David was our Christ, who gave us the truth of God." To ensure the existence of the sect, he begins trading in firearms at regional fairs. Koresh teaches his followers that they are God's chosen people and that confrontation with government is foretold in the Bible. The children are also taught how to use weapons in the religious community at an early age. And so it is not surprising that on the day of the raid everyone is willing to defend their fortress to the last breath.
Six cult members and four ATF officers are killed in the shooting and 16 officers are injured. David Koresh is also shot. Later, in a video, he shows one of his bleeding and suppurating wounds on his hip. His left wrist is also injured. But he definitely doesn't want to surrender. Like all the other wounded, he also refused medical help. With the death of the ATF officers, by law the FBI takes over. The FBI sets up a command post eight miles from the airport. At the same time, the hostage rescue team with tanks is requested. A circumstance that will cause considerable unrest in the days to come.
What then follows are weeks of tough negotiations between the FBI, the cult leader and his followers. Over the next 51 days, more than 700 law enforcement officers are involved in efforts to end the standoff. Apparently, the FBI is overwhelmed with dealing with the self-appointed prophet. During these mostly one-sided talks, Koresh threatens the FBI, discusses the events of February 28, preaches for hours, discusses his possible punishment and the death penalty, and declares his "miraculous encounter" with God in 1985.
While the officials try to persuade him and his followers to surrender, he demands for the press. The shooting has attracted media interest. Since then, a number of reporters have been at the scene of the events and reported live on the negotiations. The emergency services responsible give press conferences almost every day. A circumstance that David Koresh obviously likes. You should play a statement from him. The world should know that he was sent by God to spread his teachings. "For every time it played, he would give out two children. Always two, like Noah's Ark. It was all religious with him," recalled former FBI agent Jim Cavanaugh, one of the negotiators. "On Sunday and Monday he gave us twelve children. On Tuesday another six and two wives."
Then Koresh wants a 58-minute tape of him and his message to be broadcast on TV on a Christian channel. He would then come out with the rest of the followers. But things are different. When all the followers have already said goodbye to him, he begins to pray and explains to investigators that God has commanded him to wait. He should wait for a sign. On March 5, he sent another child out of the building. It is the last one. On March 7th, Koresh declares that there will be no more children as the remaining ones are his biological children. Shortly thereafter, Koresh and the negotiating team quarreled. "We are ready for a war. I'm giving you the chance to save yourself before you're blown away," he rumbles. Koresh explained that he had something that could hurl the hostage rescue team's Bradley tanks ten meters into the air. The officers then ordered Abrams tanks from the nearby Fort Hood military base. The largest tank the US military has to offer. Koresh responded in a video: "How they approach with their tanks. As an American, I am a person who stands in front of a tank. You can run over me, but I will bite the chains. No one will hurt me or my family . American law rules here."
A mother who surrenders to get to her child is shortly thereafter transported in handcuffs to a prison. A fatal signal. Henceforth, followers suspected a similar fate would befall them as soon as they came out. On March 21, four women and one man leave the building. Actually, there should be more that day, but the hostage rescue team's tanks suddenly roll over Koresh's antique Ford Ranchero without consulting the FBI. Probably an overreaction that expresses the frustration of the unit, which is otherwise responsible for lightning-fast and brutal operations. After all, a hostage rescue team isn't used to sitting idle and waiting for days. In addition, each day of operation costs the FBI more than a million dollars. But the flattening of the car only infuriated the cult members: "We came to the conclusion that we couldn't trust these liars. We felt that they were promising us something to get what they wanted," according to a former follower. "But they didn't keep their promises." From now on, the cult members are all the more determined not to leave the premises. A supporter later explained: "Had they intruded, we would all have committed suicide."
Finally, the authorities turn off the power to the site. To increase the psychological pressure, they torture the Davidians with sleep deprivation. They play various pieces of music or noises through loudspeakers at a deafening volume - such as that of a rabbit being slaughtered or the busy tone of a telephone.
The siege, which lasted several weeks, also attracted onlookers, especially extremists and gun rights activists. Timothy McVeigh, later known as the Oklahoma City bomber, sells anti-government stickers on the hood of his car locally.
On April 19, 1993, the FBI called Koresh to say they would use tear gas, but did not storm the building. Koresh then asks his followers to put on the gas masks. Around 6am, tanks start pounding holes in the building with their superstructures so they can place the CS shells. "I put on a gas mask. Soon I couldn't breathe anymore. The gas penetrated the skin and it burned like fire. It felt like battery acid or something," says a former cult member, describing the mission. For the children there are no gas masks. The mothers wrap them in wet towels and blankets. Koresh instructs them to take shelter in the building's bunker.
"As soon as we used the tear gas, they shot at us. Maybe more than 1,000 bullets were fired at us," a former FBI agent tells a TV station. But he insists: "We didn't even fire back." At some point, the hostage rescue team tears down the building with their tanks so that the gas is better distributed in the building. But none of the sect followers ran outside.
Shortly after 12 p.m. – the gas operation has now lasted around six hours – flames suddenly shoot out of the property. Aerial photos showed the fire blazing out from three different locations. Due to the strong wind, the flames spread rapidly to the entire building. The emergency services wait until the sect followers escape from the fire outside. FBI chief negotiator Byron Sage tries to get Koresh and his men to give up. "I tried to talk to David over the speakers," he recalls. "I yelled, 'David, don't let it end like this. Aren't you the savior? Take them out.'" But no one comes. In the end there are only nine people who escape into the open. More than 70 cult members follow their leader David Koresh to his death. 1.6 million rounds of ammunition are later found in the remains of the building. One reason why, according to official statements, the fire brigade was initially held back - because of the risk of explosion. A total of 82 sect members died during the operation, including two pregnant women and 28 children.
After the horrible end of the siege, criticism of the authorities' actions rained down. Above all, human rights groups and right-wing militias criticize the government. The question of who started the fire is of particular concern. A 1999 Time Magazine poll found that 61 percent of Americans believe the firefighters started the fire and then covered it up.
According to one theory, the CS gas grenades started the flames. The FBI, on the other hand, claims only non-combustible materials were used. However, it later emerges that some of the grenades used pyrotechnics to disperse the gas. According to the FBI, however, these were fired hours before the fire broke out. Another theory is that the fire was started by falling kerosene lamps. The authorities, on the other hand, claim that the Davidians started the fire themselves. Despite numerous hearings in the US Congress, nobody is held accountable.
When David Koresh's body was identified two weeks later, he had a gunshot wound to his forehead. According to the assistant attorney general's final report on the events in Waco, at least 17 of the 75 people who died in the fire died from gunshot wounds, including several children. Some of the adults were shot by cult members - presumably to put them out of their misery.
Medical reports later show that the children of the sect were beaten with wooden paddles for the slightest reason, for example when they spilled milk. If there was a deficit, it is said that there was nothing to eat for a day. The parents had to be called "dogs" by the children, only Koresh allowed the designation "father". A plastic Star of David was handed to eleven-year-old girls to demonstrate that they were "enlightened" and ready for sexual acts with the cult leader. The boys on the property were regularly woken up early in the morning and given military drills. Koresh controlled the entire life of the camp.
Today, where the fire raged, stands a small, white church built by volunteers. Before that, 80 trees were planted to commemorate. Visitors can still see the bare concrete foundations of the burned wooden structures on Mount Carmel. You see rubble, rubbish, the cult's swimming pool, a burned-out bus. At the entrance to Mount Carmel, a small museum provides information about the sect and the attack.
Exactly two years to the day after the Davidians died in a fire, a federal building explodes 280 miles north in Oklahoma City. 168 people are killed. The bomber, Timothy McVeigh, who has since been executed, apparently wanted to avenge the dead of Waco with the assassination. April 19 - remains a somber date in Waco and in Oklahoma City.
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Sources: history.de, Netflix documentary, report from the Attorney General's Office, documentary on YouTube,