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Waco: 25 years onThe deaths of 76 Branch Davidians in April 1993 could have been avoided – so why didn’t anyone care?

By Catherine Wessinger

Published 19 April 2018

Throughout the 6-week ordeal near Waco, Texas, media coverage of the ATF raid and FBI siege depicted the Branch Davidians as a cult with David Koresh exercising total control over mesmerized followers. It was a narrative that federal law enforcement agencies were happy to encourage, and it resonated with the public’s understanding of so-called “cults.” The story that has emerged is much more complex – and makes one wonder if the tragedy could have been avoided altogether.

Twenty-five years ago, on 28 February 1993, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents attempted to execute a “dynamic entry” into the home of a religious community at Mount Carmel, a property ten miles east of Waco, Texas.

David Koresh and his Bible students – who became known as the Branch Davidians – were living at Mount Carmel. The ATF had obtained a search warrant and an arrest warrant for Koresh, whom they suspected was in possession of illegal weapons. The raid prompted a shootout that resulted in the deaths of four ATF agents and six Branch Davidians.

On 1 March 1993, FBI agents took control of the property, and ended up presiding over what became a 51-day siege. On 19 April, the siege ended in a second tragedy when FBI agents carried out a tank and tear gas assault, which culminated in a massive fire. Seventy-six Branch Davidians, including 20 children and two miscarried babies, died. Nine Branch Davidians escaped the fire.

Throughout the ordeal, media coverage of the ATF raid and FBI siege depicted the Branch Davidians as a cult with David Koresh exercising total control over mesmerized followers. It was a narrative that federal law enforcement agencies were happy to encourage, and it resonated with the public’s understanding of so-called “cults.”

Immediately after the fire, most Americans took the side of the FBI. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found that 73 percent of Americans thought that the FBI’s use of tear gas was “responsible.” Only 13 percent thought the FBI had acted too soon, while 57 percent believed it was “not soon enough.”

But in the years since these events, I’ve interviewed surviving Branch Davidians and studied scores of internal FBI documents, government reports, testimonies, news reports, and FBI negotiation tapes and surveillance device tapes.

The story that emerges is much more complex – and makes one wonder if the tragedy could have been avoided altogether.