The Fire That Time

Fifteen years ago this month, the eyes of the world were focused on Mount Carmel, a tiny community outside Waco, where FBI, ATF, and local law enforcement found themselves in a headline-making standoff with the Branch Davidians, a religious sect led by a guitar-strumming high school dropout named David Koresh. The end was undeniably tragic, but the events that precipitated it were disputed—and as nearly two dozen participants in the 51-day saga told me recently, they remain so today.
The Branch Davidian compound in flames on April 19, 1993.
Photograph by Corbis/Greg Smith

There are no signs that point the way to Mount Carmel. Past the chapel, which was built after the fire, all that remains are a few ruined outbuildings and a lonely stretch of prairie grass. It was here, ten miles east of Waco, that David Koresh prepared his acolytes for an apocalyptic confrontation between good and evil. His followers, a disavowed splinter group of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, believed themselves to be living in the end times, when God’s final judgment was at hand. A stuttering high school dropout with a gift for illuminating Scripture, Koresh preached the “New Light,” a self-styled gospel that required him to take multiple wives so that he could father enough children to sit on the 24 heavenly thrones described in the Book of Revelation. One of his wives was fourteen years old, another twelve. To his detractors, he was a false prophet, a con man, and a pedophile. To his followers, he was the messiah.

Life in the Branch Davidians’ austere two-story wooden dormitory revolved around strict discipline, healthy eating, physical labor, and rigorous study of the Bible. But in the summer of 1992, the group caught the attention of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms after a UPS driver reported delivering a package of dummy grenades to Mount Carmel. Koresh and other Davidians, who had been earning income for the group by working at weekend gun shows, had built up an arsenal of weapons, as well as an inventory of MREs (meals ready to eat), gas masks, and paramilitary gear that they called David Koresh Survival Wear. An ATF investigation suggested that the Davidians were also illegally converting semiautomatic weapons into fully automatic weapons. The agency, which was due for a congressional budget review in the spring of 1993, devised an elaborate plan to raid Mount Carmel that, it hoped, would net not only the sect’s illegal weapons but some positive publicity as well. And so Operation Trojan Horse was born. Rather than bringing Koresh in for questioning, the ATF trained its agents at Fort Hood to take the building by force.

In doing so, federal authorities inadvertently fulfilled Koresh’s prophecy of a pitched battle in which God’s people would be called to defend themselves. What ensued was the deadliest law enforcement operation in U.S. history. To mark the fifteenth anniversary of the standoff, we asked the people who were there to share their stories.

“‘THEY KNOW WERE COMING!’”

On the morning of February 28, 1993, ATF agents gathered at a staging area near Waco and prepared to serve a search warrant on the Branch Davidians’ residence. KWTX-TV cameraman Dan Mulloney, who had received a tip about the raid, headed for Mount Carmel with reporter John McLemore. A colleague, cameraman Jim Peeler, was supposed to meet them there but got lost. As Peeler studied a map by the side of the road, a mailman stopped to ask if he needed directions. Peeler did not know that the mailman was David Jones, a Branch Davidian who was Koresh’s brother-in-law.

Jones hurried back to Mount Carmel to tell Koresh of his encounter. Koresh then took aside Robert Rodriguez, a new devotee whom he correctly suspected was an undercover agent, and told him that he knew a raid was imminent. Rodriguez made a frantic exit and called ATF commander Chuck Sarabyn. “Chuck, they know!” he cried. Sarabyn, who would later claim that he was unaware that the element of surprise had been lost, decided to proceed with the raid anyway.

Larry Lynch, 61, was a lieutenant at the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office. He is now the county’s sheriff. I was at the staging area that morning when one of the ATF supervisors ran in and said, “Let’s go! Let’s go! They know we’re coming!”

Bill Buford, 63, was the resident agent in charge at the ATF’s Little Rock, Arkansas, office, whose agents—along with those from the New Orleans office—were called in to assist. He is now the bomb squad commander for the Arkansas State Police. I remember thinking, “What do you mean ‘They know we’re coming’?” Once we knew the element of surprise had been lost, we should have called it off. In hindsight, I wish that I had said, “No, I’m not taking my team.” I probably would have been fired, but knowing what I know now, I would have loved to have been fired for making that decision.

Chuck Hustmyre, 44, was an ATF special agent. He is a crime writer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. There were 76 agents on the operation. Before we left the staging area, we were loaded up into cattle trailers. That was highly unusual, to say the least, but that part of Texas is just a big, barren, windswept prairie, and there’s nothing to hide behind. The idea was to get us to the door of the compound covertly and not announce that we were government agents. Somebody decided that cattle trailers blended in a lot better than a convoy of unmarked cars with tinted windows. So we were jammed, shoulder to shoulder, into two trailers that were covered in tarps so you couldn’t see in.

Buford As I was getting people to put their gear on, I had a bad feeling. I asked, “What do you mean ‘They know we’re coming’? Are they getting ready for us?” I was told that all the Davidians were in the chapel, praying. My logic was, well, if they’re all in the chapel, maybe we can still get in there and cut the men off from their guns. We knew that they usually kept their guns in their living quarters, under their beds. I didn’t know that 45 minutes had elapsed since Robert [Rodriguez] had seen anything.

Clive Doyle, 67, is a Branch Davidian who was living at Mount Carmel at the time of the raid. He lives in Waco. I heard all this hubbub in the cafeteria, so I went back there to find out what the excitement was all about.

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