We Survived Waco: Witnesses Relive the Cult’s Deadly Clash With Law Enforcement 25 Years Later
More than 80 Branch Davidians and four federal agents died in the 1993 altercation in Texas
Twenty-five years later, Clive Doyle has not forgotten the heat of the fire that consumed the Mount Carmel compound outside Waco Texas, on April 19, 1993 — leaving behind the bodies of 75 members of the Branch Davidian religious group.
Among the dead were 25 children and the group’s leader, David Koresh, a self-proclaimed prophet who shot himself as his home burned.
“The skin was all peeling off my hands,” Doyle, 77, recalls of the blaze that investigators said Davidians themselves set in the compound that April day. “My jacket was smoking and melting.”
The deadly inferno ended a 51-day siege of the Davidians by federal agents after a raid by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that February triggered a ferocious gun battle. Four ATF agents and six followers of the 33-year-old Koresh were killed in the shootout.
Decades later, the horror at Waco has left an indelible mark on both the Branch Davidian survivors and the law enforcement agents who were there.
“It’s not like I haven’t lived this every day of my life since then,” former FBI negotiator Byron Sage tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue.
“I don’t think we ever had the slightest control over how this thing was going to end,” Sage says. “It was all David.”
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The standoff between authorities and the cult was complicated by its scale and by the zealotry of the Davidians, Sage says:
“We had over 120 people who were heavily armed and fortified and had been indoctrinated or brainwashed into this self-fulfilling prophesy that they were the chosen of the Lamb of God — which is what David called himself — and that they were the elect that would initiate the battle of Armageddon. The only true hostages were the children.”
What would become one of the deadliest clashes between law enforcement and citizens in American history began on Feb. 28, 1993, when ATF agents raided the Branch Davidian’s compound when reports surfaced that Koresh had been sexually abusing minors and stockpiling weapons. A fierce gunfight between agents and Koresh’s armed followers ensued.
“They were going to protect themselves. They were going to protect their property,” David Thibodeau, a Waco survivor and author of A Place Called Waco, tells PEOPLE. “That’s just an American thing.”
Larry Lynch, then a lieutenant at the McLennan County, Texas, Sheriff’s Office, says he spoke to Koresh soon after that shooting.
“I said, ‘I know you have wounded,’ and [Koresh] wanted to talk about theology and I said, ‘No, let’s get the wounded out.’ But he wasn’t too interested in that,” Lynch remembers. “It was one way — it was his way. He thought he could control the situation and everyone would go away.”
Gary Noesner, the FBI’s negotiation coordinator for the first half of the weeks-long stalemate, says authorities realized early on that “we couldn’t make a deal with anyone other than Koresh, so if Koresh was sleeping nothing got accomplished.
“He wouldn’t talk to us for days,” says Noesner, who is the author of Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator.
He says that while he was in charge, he was able to secure the release of 35 Davidians — but none of them were Koresh’s children. For Koresh to leave, says Noesner, he would have “had to give up his kingdom and control over his followers. At the end of the day he had to give up too much and some of the actions made it easier to resist the opportunity to come out.”
Throughout the siege, FBI negotiators tried different strategies to get the group to leave Mount Carmel, including trying to convince Koresh’s right-hand man, Steve Schneider, whose wife had a child with Koresh, to turn against him. But it didn’t work.
“He was educated,” says Sage of Schneider. “He was articulate, but he didn’t have an independence of thought or the ability to do anything without the blessing of David.”
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As the impasse dragged on and the negotiations with Koresh waned, tanks moved in and rammed the compound. Military gas was also used in an attempt to flush the Davidians out of the building.
Some time after that, the compound went up in flames — a fire that was exactly what Koresh had prophesized.
“He preached that forces of evil were coming to get them and they would all be killed in a fiery ending and come back as the chosen, and our actions sort of validated his prophecy among his followers,” Noesner says now.
Doyle, the Davidian who was one of nine survivors at the compound, lost his daughter in the fire. He says he narrowly escaped through a whole in the wall.
Koresh along with Schneider and dozens more perished.
Though a congressional investigation later concluded the fire was intentionally started by the Branch Davidians, Koresh’s followers have denied they were responsible, instead pointing to federal agents.
“At the end of the day,” Noesner says, “The branch weren’t big evil people and neither is the government. This was a complex tragedy and there were a lot of mistakes on both sides.”