Editor’s note: This article by reporter Jim Phillips originally ran on the front page of the American-Statesman on April 20, 1993, the day after the Mount Carmel compound outside Waco went up in flames. Officials later determined that 76 people died that day.
WACO — More than 80 people were believed dead Monday as cult leader David Koresh’s doomsday prophecy was fulfilled when his compound was consumed by flames started by cult members who chose to die rather than surrender to federal agents.
Nine people survived the inferno, which was started six hours after agents began knocking holes in the compound and pumping tear gas into the buildings. Four of the survivors were hospitalized and five were taken into custody.
About 85 people, including 25 children, are believed to be dead. There were reports some of the children were injected with poison before the flames reached them.
The siege at the Branch Davidian compound ended on its 51st day much as it had begun, with gunfire and death. FBI agents said they thought their assault, which began at 6 a.m., was the best way to protect lives while still forcing cult members out of the fortified buildings. Agents also said they did not expect Koresh and his followers to commit suicide.
The catastrophic end of Ranch Apocalypse was broadcast live across the nation, to the horror of viewers and law enforcement officials.
“He wanted to have as many people killed in that compound as possible, that’s why it was named Ranch Apocalypse,” said FBI agent Bob Ricks.
“I can’t tell you the shock and the horror that all of us felt when we saw those flames coming out,” Ricks said. “We thought, `Oh my God, they are killing themselves.’
“We can only assume that there was a massive loss of life. It was truly an inferno of flames. It would be very surprising if any (additional cult members) survived. David Koresh, we believe, gave the order to commit suicide, and they all willingly followed his order.”
Austin police Sgt. John Jones, who worked with federal agents in Waco on a computer program he designed, said, “It’s tragic, but then again, it was going to be tragic.
“The question was whether it was going to be tragic today, or going to be tragic tomorrow or going to be tragic next week. I don’t think (Koresh) had any intention of this ending peacefully.”
The fire, reportedly started simultaneously in three parts of the compound, was fed by high winds. It leveled the four-story compound in little more than 30 minutes, agents said. Billowing smoke could be seen for at least 10 miles, and explosions of ammunition and fuel continued for hours.
Authorities planned to enter the charred grounds today with medical personnel. A refrigerated truck converted to a portable morgue was brought to Waco from Fort Worth.
The federal assault on the compound came after more than seven weeks of frustrating negotiations and broken promises. Thirty-seven people, mostly children, left the compound since the standoff began on Feb. 28, but the majority of those came in the first few days. Koresh had promised more than once to surrender, but Ricks said Monday, agents were told Koresh planned to kill himself and several law officers with hand grenades in an announced surrender in early March.
The siege began after 150 agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, trying to serve an arrest warrant for Koresh and a search warrant for illegal weapons, were met by a barrage of gunfire. Four ATF agents were killed, 16 others were wounded. Cult members have said six of their members died in the 45-minute gunbattle.
The cult, which Koresh had headed since 1987, has been stockpiling automatic weapons and fortifying the 77-acre compound. Koresh, who has said he was a prophet, had predicted a cataclysmic end to the cult.
Like the raid that began the confrontation, Monday’s sudden escalation by federal agents had its share of detractors. There were several announcements in Washington of congressional investigations of ATF and FBI actions.
State Rep. Betty Denton of Waco said she watched the blazing compound on television, and said it “confirmed your worst nightmares, seeing the whole thing end with death and destruction.”
“I have asked for a congressional investigation because there needs to be an inquiry into how this happened … how the guns came to be there, how the raid came about, and eventually how the entire destruction came to the compound.”
The assault was approved by U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno after President Clinton had been informed of the pending action.
“I made the decision,” Reno said Monday. “I’m accountable. The buck stops with me.”
A combat vehicle with a battering ram attached began punching holes in the compound walls about 6 a.m., minutes after cult members were told to surrender.
By 10:30 a.m., about a dozen holes had been knocked into the compound, some as large as eight-feet square. Each time the armored vehicle approached the compound, it was met with 10 or 12 shots from firearms, Ricks said.
Ricks said officials had hoped that when the gas, CS2, was used, “the motherly instinct would take place,” and at least the children would be freed. “Apparently they don’t care about their children, and that is unfortunate.”
Cult members set the fire in three different places, and two people were observed starting the blaze, Ricks said. One cult member who escaped the flames told agents that he smelled lantern fuel spread throughout the compound.
Firefighters were not allowed into the compound until much of the site was destroyed, said Fire Chief James Karl of Bellmead. Ricks said agents did not want to expose firefighters to gunfire or explosions.
A woman ran from the compound in flames, but tried to return inside, Ricks said. An FBI agent left an armored vehicle and rescued the woman against her will, he said.
One of the cult members left the compound shooting, said ATF spokesman Jack Killorin in Washington.
David Thibodeau, 24, was identified as one of those who escaped. His mother, Balenda Ganem, said, “It’s indescribable the joy I feel right now, but 85 to 90 of the closest people in his life are dead. So it’s a very difficult joy to celebrate.”
Ricks said authorities believe Koresh was forced to choose between surrender and suicide once the pipe being used to inject tear gas pierced a protective bunker in which he was hiding. “We were putting massive gas in there,” said Ricks. “Their gas masks by that time had to be failing. They had to make a decision.”
The decision was to die, and today authorities will begin the task of recovering and trying to identify the bodies.
Darrell Thompson, assistant chief medical investigator for the Tarrant County medical examiner’s office, said the bodies “will be transported to our facility, and we will begin our examinations as soon as the bodies start arriving. We will make identification by whatever means are available to us.”
One law enforcement source said Monday that might prove difficult. Many of the children were raised at the compound, and may not have dental records, and others were from other countries where obtaining records could take weeks, he said.
The source also said Texas Rangers and ATF agents will take over the crime scene and begin investigating the killings of the ATF agents and the fatal blaze. The destruction of the compound will hinder that inquiry, he said.
“It’s going to be very difficult to find physical evidence,” of the Feb. 28 shootout, he said. The fire “is a good way of destroying evidence, no doubt about it.”
Three of the injured were flown to Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, where two were in critical condition with burns, officials said.
One injured woman remained in stable condition at Hillcrest Baptist Hospital in Waco, officials said. She suffered relatively minor burns and also fractured an ankle leaping to safety.
Austin and Travis County officials who had been assisting federal agents during the standoff expressed differing reactions to the tragic end.
“I think that all of us, especially the negotiation people, feel a loss for the children,” said Austin police Sgt. Jack Kelly. “They are the true victims in this whole mess.”
Lt. Terry Pickering, head of the special weapons and tactics team of the Travis County sheriff’s department, said, “I kind of felt all along that they weren’t going to come out.
“The way they…protrayed Koresh as God, I felt like the people were brainwashed enough to follow him and do whatever he wanted them to do.”
Mike Simpson, technical team leader for the Austin-Travis County Hostage Negotiation Team, said, “It was a self-inflicted inferno. It’s kind of a sad end to the entire saga.
He added, “We can’t forget that these people murdered four officers who were there to protect the public.”
A Waco minister said that a 30-minute non-denominational service will be held today. Rev. George Holland said the “service of prayer and lament” will begin at 12:15 p.m. at Central Presbyterian Church.
Holland said, “A lot of people in Waco are hurting, and they just need somewhere to go to grieve and pray.”