On Feb. 28, 1993, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms agents approached the Branch Davidian cult’s 77-acre compound outside of Waco, Texas; with warrants citing federal firearms violations, the agents intended to arrest Vernon Howell, the cult’s leader, who called himself David Koresh.
A fierce, two-hour gunbattle followed the attempt to arrest the self-proclaimed Christ figure, and accusations flew as to which side started the shooting.
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported on March 1 that at the end of the shootout, four federal agents, including Robert J. Williams, a 26-year-old Little Rock native, and two cult members were killed, although Koresh claimed six Davidians were killed.
An uneasy standoff followed, during which Koresh “began releasing the dozens of children believed held inside, letting them go two at a time.”
On March 2, the Democrat-Gazette told readers that the cult’s name came from the “sect’s belief that it is a branch of biblical Israel that would restore the royal line of King David” and was originally founded by a Seventh-day Adventist minister.
The cult “bolted” the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the 1930s and afterward splintered over leadership disputes. As the cult’s current leader, Koresh insisted that he knew the Book of Revelation’s seven seals and could set off catastrophic events. The Seventh-day Adventist Church disavowed any connection with the group.
Unlike Adventists, the Davidians believed in self-defense and trained with high-powered weapons, the paper reported.
The Democrat-Gazette reported that Koresh “acknowledges having numerous wives and ex-cult members said he has fathered many children by different women.” According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, some of Koresh’s wives were reported to be as young as 11 years old.
As the negotiations stalled for more than a month, more than 30 people were allowed to leave the compound, 21 of them children, according to Democrat-Gazette reports.
Then, in the early morning of April 19, the 51-day standoff came to a swift conclusion. FBI agents used armored vehicles to pound holes in the buildings, through which they sprayed tear gas in an effort to confuse the cult members and drive them out. But gunshots were heard within the compound, and shortly afterward the wooden buildings inside were ablaze.
This April 20 Democrat-Gazette reported that one of the nine survivors of the “inferno” told the agents that the cult members had started the fire, which was confirmed by multiple witnesses outside the compound. Page 1 presented a picture of the burning compound.
“I can’t tell you the shock and the horror that all of us felt when we saw those flames coming out,” FBI spokesman Bob Ricks said at a news conference. “We thought, ‘Oh my God, they are killing themselves.’”
According to Britannica, 75 people died in the blaze, including 25 children.
— Jeanne Dahl
CORRECTION: On Feb. 28, 1993, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents confronted the Branch Davidian cult led by David Koresh outside the group’s compound near Waco, Texas, triggering a gun battle and standoff. An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect date for the initial shootout.
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