Shadow of ghastly siege still hangs over America
Apocalypse returns 20 years later to site of deadly raid on messianic sect holed up in Waco, Texas. Rupert Cornwell reports
Coincidences, coincidences, coincidences. First, letters containing deadly poisons mailed to the mighty in Washington DC days after a deadly terrorist attack.
In 2001, it was 9/11 and the anthrax scare; this week, the Boston Marathon, followed by the ricin letters to President Obama and a Mississippi senator. And now a place called Waco.
Yesterday, the name of the central Texas city was shorthand for Wednesday night's blast – apparently an accident, although no one is saying for sure – at the West Fertiliser plant, 20 miles to the north of town; an explosion that registered as powerful as a small earthquake.
But, exactly 20 years ago today, Waco, Texas denoted an event that was anything but accidental – and, quite literally, an apocalyptic event for the scores of religious sect members who died in a burning sea of fire, gas and assault-rifle rounds.
What became notorious in the US media as the 'Siege of Mount Carmel', a few miles to the east of Waco, had begun on February 28, 1993 – barely a month into Bill Clinton's first term of office.
That February day, four federal agents died in an initial raid on the headquarters of a group of Branch Davidians as they tried to execute a warrant to search for arms believed to be stockpiled inside by David Koresh, the Branch Davidians's charismatic, but tyrannical leader.
David Koresh had seized control of the compound after a split within the Branch Davidians in 1987. His control over his 100-odd followers, as they awaited the Day of Judgment and the Second Coming, was absolute, amid reports that he abused children and had taken many under-age female followers as concubines.
After the failed initial raid, the FBI began a siege of the compound that lasted for 51 long, torturous days and nights. A media army arrived, but was allowed no closer than a mile from the Branch Davidians' compound, with which all communications had been severed by federal agents.
In the mornings, there were FBI briefings, often focused on a search for Biblical clues as to what David Koresh might be planning next. In the afternoon, reporters used binoculars to watch the compound, hungrily scouring the grounds for signs of movement.
The consensus seemed to be that a climax would come at Easter, which fell that year on April 11. But no earthly immolation, or resurrection, occurred on that date and the wait for something to happen dragged on. On April 19, it did.
Bill Clinton, by all accounts, had wanted to wait the Branch Davidians out. But the cost – financial, human and reputational – was growing, amid warnings that conditions inside Mount Carmel were fast deteriorating. Finally the president authorised the FBI to go in – and go in hard they did.
Armoured FBI vehicles – some hard to distinguish from US Army tanks – smashed holes in the walls and tear-gas was pumped inside. Some of the Branch Davidians opened fire; the FBI fired back.
Finally, a series of fires and explosions rocked the complex. Nine Branch Davidians managed to leave, but 76 perished in the flames inside – including David Koresh.
The survivors were tried and sentenced to up to 40 years in federal jail. The last of them were only released from prison in 2007.
But anger at the FBI's handling of the case was widespread – especially on the anti-government far-Right.
That anger spurred the militant Timothy McVeigh to choose April 19, 1995 – the second anniversary of Waco – for the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, until 9/11 the deadliest terrorist outrage on US soil.