The announcement blared over loudspeakers just before dawn on April 19. Many of the Branch Davidians were sleeping; a few were awake, reading their Bibles. "This is not an assault! Do not fire! Come out now and you will not be harmed!" FBI agents were warning cult members to leave Ranch Apocalypse on what the agents hoped would be the last day of the standoff. Survivors heard a different message. "Some of the very religious people," says Jack Zimmermann, a cult member's lawyer, "thought it was the last day of the world." For most of them, it would be.
Even after 51 days of facing each other across the wind-swept plains of central Texas, the FBI and the Branch Davidians were still aliens to each other -viewing reality through very different prisms. Outside the barbed wire encircling Ranch Apocalypse, the imperative was clear: uphold the law. Inside, the Branch Davidians believed they answered to a higher authority. It was a recipe for disaster.
Weeks of negotiations and broken promises, glimmers of hope and crushing disappointments. It all led to the ending that the FBI had tried to avoid. How could the federal authorities have so misjudged the cult's intentions? Did the Branch Davidians really intend to commit suicide, or was the fire an accident (page 28)? In the first hours after the fire, it seemed important to find someone to blame for the terrible loss of life: 86 people, including at least 17 children. Was that someone cult leader David Koresh? The FBI? Attorney General Janet Reno? President Clinton? Polls, including NEWSWEEK'S, showed the public quickly decided Koresh was the villain. Was the whole operation doomed from the start? From dozens of interviews with Branch Davidians, law-enforcement officials, former cult members and lawyers, a team of NEWSWEEK correspondents pieced together the last days of the cult-the final act of the tragedy in Waco.
By early April, FBI officials in charge of the siege were frustrated by negotiations with Koresh and his lieutenants. To his followers, Koresh was the chosen one, but the FBI saw only a grandiose fanatic who prophesied awful calamities. They were haunted by the deaths of four agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in the original Feb. 28 raid on the compound. They feared that more agents might die before Koresh was captured. Experts consulted by the FBI-psychologists, theologians, cult deprogrammers--were alarmed by Koresh's apocalyptic visions. In an April 9 letter to the FBI, Koresh predicted that there would be an earthquake and that a dam would burst. The FBI feared Koresh sympathizers might be inspired to blow up a dam in Waco to make their prophet look good. "We are listening to the ramblings of a diseased mind," Syracuse University psycholinguist Murray Miron told the FBI. "These are one-sided delusional tirades made by a paranoiac." In the first four weeks, 34 people voluntarily left the compound, including 21 children. No one else seemed ready to come out. The FBI was tired of waiting.
In the days before the final assault, the Davidians had settled into a comfortable routine, according to cult members' lawyers who visited Ranch Apocalypse. The children, some of them believed to be Koresh's own by a multitude of mothers, spent much of their time in dormitory-like rooms on the second floor. The walls were decorated with drawings and construction-paper cutouts: cowboys and Indians, flowers, letters of the alphabet. The cult members didn't forget their manners when the lawyers visited, offering them some of the two-year supply of military rations they had amassed-chicken A la king, recalls attorney Jack Zimmermann, who represented Steve Schneider, Koresh's right-hand man.
The Davidians had adapted to the FBI's pressure tactics, the lawyers say. Earthly inconvenience didn't matter much in their grand scheme. Spotlights shining through their windows all night? More illumination for Bible study, and especially welcome since the electricity had been cut off. The nightly loudspeaker renditions of Nancy Sinatra, Tibetan monks and of rabbits being slaughtered only intensified their solidarity. They exercised regularly, trying to keep in shape. Koresh was articulate and charming, always eager to share his version of the Scriptures. He had a stubble of beard, "like a guy who used an electric shaver and ran out of batteries," Zimmermann recalls. Schneider was always well groomed, even worried about his appearance. At one point, he asked Zimmermann: "Should I get one of our people in here to cut my hair before I come out or let the people at the jail cut it?"
The Davidians didn't trust the government. They were still outraged over relatively minor incidents. Six Alaskan Malamutes, "nice dogs," were hit by ATF bullets in the first raid, according to Dick DeGuerin, Koresh's lawyer. "They shot them but they didn't finish them off," DeGuerin says. "They were the kids' pets. The dogs were squealing and squawling. They had some mongrels out there, too, that got hurt in the razor wire. That angered them."
The FBI was angry, as well: too many false promises. On March 2, the third day of the standoff, Koresh had vowed to come out after the FBI allowed the broadcast of a 58-minute religious message Koresh had taped. But later that day Koresh announced that God had told him to wait. On March 20, Koresh demanded that he be allowed to preach to his flock while he was in jail awaiting trial, Two days later the FBI agreed in a letter to Koresh signed by Special Agent in Charge Jeff Jamar. Schneider was pleased, but then told negotiators that Koresh "had taken the letter, wadded it up and thrown it in the corner."
In early April, there was once again reason for hope. Koresh agreed to surrender after the cult members celebrated Passover. But it turned out that only he knew when his version of the holiday ended. Then Koresh pledged to come out after finishing his manuscript on the Seven Seals of the Book of Revelation. By this time, the FBI didn't believe Koresh would ever leave voluntarily. Agents say Schneider, who logged more than 100 hours of telephone conversations with the FBI during the siege, told them that Koresh wasn't even working on the manuscript. Says Jamar: "It was just another stall."
On April 7 and 8, FBI Deputy Director Floyd Clarke and Assistant Director Larry Potts took an unannounced trip to Waco. The trip's purpose was for Jamar and his aides to brief Clarke and Potts on a plan to end the siege. Jamar wanted to roll in tanks and shoot the compound full of nonlethal gas.
On April 12, Attorney General Janet Reno, in office for just a month, convened a 90-minute meeting at the FBI's fifth-floor command center in Washington with senior officials of the FBI and the Department of Justice: Director William Sessions, Clarke, Potts and a handful of others. The tank-and-gas plan was outlined in great detail. Reno asked scores of questions. Two days later she widened the task force, calling in about a dozen Justice and FBI officials, along with representatives of the army's elite Delta Force and an expert on tear gas. For early two hours Reno played prosecutor, cross-examining the participants. "Why now? Is there anything else that can be done? What's the likely effect on the children? Is this the best chance of getting the most people out of there?"
Associate Attorney General-designate Webster Hubbel, who was at the meeting, told NEWSWEEK that Reno was relentless: "I don't know of any question people have asked since that she didn't ask then." Reno's primary concern appeared to be the welfare of the children, Hubbel says. Several participants at the meeting, including Reno, said FBI agents told them that a cult member who left the compound early in the siege had talked of babies being beaten, being slapped around. Reno asked: "Do you really mean beaten?" The agents said yes.
Reno was also worried by reports that sanitary conditions were rapidly deteriorating. Ranch Apocalypse never had proper toilets or running water. Before the siege, the adults would collect human waste, in a bucket and trudge out every morning to a grassy area beyond the pool to bury the waste. But after Feb. 28, those sorties stopped because cult members feared being shot by FBI snipers. In the end, members were reduced to tossing buckets of waste out the front door. In an interview later on CNN's "Larry King Live," Reno said her "horrible fear" was that "if I delayed, without sanitation or toilets there...I could go in there in two months and find children dead from any number of things."
Reno also asked a lot of questions about the gas, NEWSWEEK has learned. It was CS gas, which is much more debilitating than normal tear gas. She listened attentively as Dr. Harry Salem of the army's Edgewood Research Development and Engineering Center in Maryland assured her that the gas was nonlethal, wouldn't permanently harm adults or children and wouldn't start a fire during delivery. Salem methodically listed the possible effects: eye irritation, crying, mucous-membrane irritation, coughing, sneezing, difficulty in breathing. The gas, he told Reno, was "the best nonlethal alternative that's available."
The gas had another advantage, the experts told Reno. It was their "unanimous and constant opinion" that gas was the best way to prevent mass suicide, Hubbell says. FBI agents told the group, he says, that "they would go in and knock huge holes in the wall and give people the opportunity to run out. The gas would disorient anyone who would presumably be doing the shooting" in a homicide or suicide scenario.
Reno convened still another meeting on Saturday. Her senior staff had gathered early to watch the Rodney King verdict come in. At 3:30, they ordered a late lunch and shared pepperoni pizza in Reno's conference room. At 6, they met again, with the leftover pizza strewn about the table. Once more, Reno asked FBI officials about the safety of the children. That evening she made up her mind. The next day, Sunday, April 18, she called President Clinton and talked to him for 15 minutes. Reno recalls the conversation: "'Have you carefully considered it?' he asked. 'Do you feel this is the best way to go?' And I said, 'Yes, sir, it's my responsibility, and I think it's the best way to go'."
At 4 a.m. on April 19, in the predawn darkness of the Texas prairie, Jeff Jamar was concentrating on the wind. For 51 days Jamar had waited for this moment. The FBI was in full force, with all 170 agents in Waco on duty. The Feds had brought in M-60 tanks reconfigured into Combat Engineering Vehicles-CEVs. Attached to the front of two of the CEVs were large booms, or arms. The plan was to poke those booms through the walls of the compound on the far left and right sides of the building and then pump gas into the upper and lower levels of the compound to try and drive the cult members into the center and out the front. Dick Rogers, head of the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team, led the actual gassing operation. He was buttoned up in an A-1 Abrams command tank outside the compound, linked to the rest of his team, who were either in CEVs or standing by in four Bradley armored personnel carriers stationed outside the wire perimeter. FBI snipers were posted in two houses more than 100 yards across from the compound on Double EE Ranch Road.
As Jamar and his aides gathered in the FBI's forward command post a mile from the compound, everything was set for a final push-an end to the standoff at Ranch Apocalypse. Everything except the wind.
Around Waco, the wind is always blowing, sending clouds of dust through the grass. Now, if it was blowing too hard, it would dissipate the effect of the tear gas by blowing the gas out of the compound. At 4 a.m., it was still blowing. Finally, after almost an hour of tense waiting and watching, there was a lull. It was time.
At 5:55 a.m., Byron Sage, the FBI's negotiations coordinator on the scene, picked up the phone and called the compound, as he had done many times before. He asked for Koresh or Schneider. Schneider came to the phone and Sage told him: "There's going to be tear gas injected into the compound. This is not an assault. Do not fire. The idea is to get you out of the compound." The same message was broadcast simultaneously to the Davidians via the elaborate speaker system that the FBI had set up around Ranch Apocalypse. Schneider's response was unequivocal. "Everybody grab your masks!" he yelled to his fellow cult members. Then, in a gesture of defiance, he picked up the phone and threw it out the front window.
The Branch Davidians had known for weeks that this moment was coming. Koresh had predicted it: Armageddon, right here on the ranch. They had fortified the compound. Zimmermann had seen the makeshift barricade near the front door: a piano, sacks of potatoes, industrialsize canned vegetables. In the same location, there was also a large metal drum of propane gas that the Davidians used for cooking. Most of the windows had been shot out; they were covered with cloth to keep out the wind and rain. The cloth was attached to the top of the window with nails or thumbtacks and anchored with bales of hay to the floor. The window coverings made even the exterior rooms so dark during the day that after power was cut off, almost every room had a Coleman lantern.
Around 6 a.m., Jaime Castillo, a 25-year-old native of El Monte, Calif., asleep in the compound's chapel, was awakened by a horrendous crash. He groped his way to the first-floor room where he normally slept, only to see that a large hole had been punched into the wall. Later, he tried to move around the building, but the repeated pounding on the exterior had left piles of rubble everywhere. The central stairway between the first and second floors was littered with plasterboard and wood and had partially collapsed. He didn't see or hear any of the children, usually asleep in their upstairs bedrooms. Sources told NEWSWEEK the children donned adult-size gas masks with wet towels stuffed around them to make them fit.
David Koresh had been up all night, working on what one survivor said was his manuscript. When the assault began, he was still dressed in sweat pants and a tank top. Later he donned a canvas hunting vest with numerous pockets, the kind used for holding ammunition.
Jamar says that almost immediately after the tanks started punching holes into the building and injecting gas, the cult members fired at the tanks-a charge survivors deny. "They fired with automatic weapons, probably AR-15s or AK-47s," says Jamar. The FBI did not return the fire, Jamar says, but because they were under attack, they moved on to the next phase of their plan: gassing the entire building. They were prepared to wait up to 48 hours for all the cult members to come out. Inside the compound, survivors say, Davidians read their Bibles through the lenses of their gas masks. The gassing continued for 30 minutes, Jamar says, and then the FBI pulled back for two minutes to give cult members time to get out. No one did. The gassing resumed. The FBI also fired teargas projectiles through windows and walls.
At 8:30, after the second round of gassing ended, Jamar received bad news: more wind. In a matter of hours there were gusts of up to 35 knots. Jamar met with aides halfway between the command post and the compound. "There was a lot of activity in front of the windows," he recalls, "people with long rifles. So we decided to gas the front, but we also thought, maybe people can't get out. They're blocked or there's someone blocking the doors." Tanks bashed in the wall next to the front door.
The last time any of the survivors say they saw David Koresh was at about 10 a.m., when he was walking up and down the second-floor hallway, checking cult members' gas masks, Zimmermann says. Survivors say they last saw Steve Schneider about a half hour later, wearing headphones, listening to the radio.
The final round of gassing was over by about 11:50, Jamar says. Eighteen bottles of tear gas had been injected into the compound. Then, at 12:05: smoke.
Jamar saw the first ominous dark curls fanning out of the front right corner of the compound. At the same time, an FBI plane flying overhead videotaped a huge fire that had started behind the tower. Altogether, there appeared to be as many as four separate blazes starting almost simultaneously, Jamar says. At that point a few people finally fled the compound. "I saw the smoke, I saw the flames and I saw people coming out," Jamar says. "And I thought, 'Well, he's burning the crime scene'." Then the full impact hit Jamar. "People stopped coming out and the fire just roared ... It was just horror."
One cult member, Renos Avraam, appeared on the top of the burning roof. He fell to the ground, and FBI agents rescued him. In another part of the compound, a distraught woman, Ruth Riddle, emerged from the flames. She tried to go back in, but agents rescued her, too. Six other cult members, including Castillo, escaped from the right side or the rear of the building. A ninth cult member, Graeme Craddock, came out of his hiding place near the old water tower about an hour after the fire went out. Everyone else, including Schneider and Koresh, was presumed dead.
"It was a mass murder," Jamar insists. It wasn't a mass suicide. Those people would have done whatever he said. If he told them to 'leave, I'll stay here and burn,' they would have left."
In the days and hours afterward, accusations of blame flew as fast as the fires had spread through the compound. The FBI claimed that the fires were part of a suicide plan; the survivors just as adamantly denied it. They said the FBI had knocked over the lanterns and the propane, and the combination of hay, kerosene and wind had turned the compound's long corridors into a tragically effective flue that spread flames instantly through the building. NEWSWEEK has learned that late last week arson investigators uncovered new evidence that the fires were set: metal lantern-fuel containers with what appeared to be deliberate punctures.
As the law-enforcement officials combed through the debris, devastated survivors, former cult members and their families around the world tried desperately to make sense of the pain. In Manchester, England, Nellie Morrison, the grandmother of 6-year-old Melissa Morrison, could only scream hysterically at her television set as she watched the compound where the little girl lived go up in flames. Nellie Morrison's daughter, who also died, had been a dedicated Branch Davidian. Samuel Henry, another Briton, lost his wife and his five children. "There's no point in anger," he says. "My family's dead already."
In the McLennan County Jail, Livingston Fagan, a Branch Davidian who left the compound four weeks ago, told NEWSWEEK he's sad because he didn't die with his friends and family. The fact that so many of them chose to burn together, rather than surrender, he says, was "an indication of the strength of their faith."
In Los Angeles, two women are piecing together new lives. Jeannine Bunds, 51, lived in the compound for several years and was one of Koresh's "wives." A nurse and midwife, she delivered many of the children who died in the fire. She left in 1991, when Koresh asked her if she was capable of killing her children. "Personally, I don't believe much of anything anymore," she says. "I put my whole heart and soul in this. To go through what I did, it's hard to know what to think." Her daughter, Robyn Bunds, 23, was one of Koresh's wives too. Four years ago Jeannine delivered Robyn's son, Shaun, at the compound. The father was David Koresh. Of the many children Koresh sired, Shaun may be the only one still alive. Last week Shaun proudly showed off a stamp on his hand, a picture of Rocky from the "Rocky and Bullwinkle" cartoon show. He got it that morning at a Mexican restaurant. "He doesn't really understand anything," his mother explained. And then she cried.
The fire may have consumed 86 Davidians (and six died Feb. 28), but the FBI has not identified all who were in the compound. Here is what we know about 104 cult members who perished-or got out:
AGE Adults 18 and older 34 Adolescents 14 to 17 2 Children under 14 17 Age unknown 8 NATIONALITY American 32 British 14 Australian 3 New Zealander 3 Filipino 1 Israeli 1 Unknown 7 GENDER Females 37 Males 24 CHILDREN FATHERED BY KORESH 7
Cult members who left the compound after Feb. 28 (includes 21 children 12 and under) 34 Cult members who survived April 19 fire 9