Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

David Koresh: Millennial Violence

The Apocalypse

Just after dawn on Monday morning, April 19, the FBI phoned the compound to warn those inside about what was to occur. Linedecker provides a full description of what was said. It was not an assault, the FBI insisted, but a means for getting the Davidians to come out. This was the most uncomfortable tactic they'd used thus far, and if it didn't work, they could only resort to real aggression. Yet they believed that no one would long endure the harsh fumes of the gas. It burned the mouth, eyes, skin, and lungs to the point that any reasonable person would accept a way to escape it.

Armored vehicle at the compound
Armored vehicle at the compound

Three minutes after the initial call, two Combat Engineering Vehicles approached the buildings, punched holes into the fragile walls, and began to spray teargas through nozzles into the compound, propelled by noncombustible carbon dioxide. Nearby were an Abrams tank and nine Bradley vehicles, while choppers flew overhead, taking aerial photos. Everyone was under orders that if children were in any way endangered, the mission was to be aborted.

Abruptly, the Davidians opened fire at the tanks. Yet the teargas injection continued and CS grenades were thrown in through the windows. The walls of the buildings were no match for the tanks, and large holes appeared wherever the tanks were used. Then the vehicles pulled back for an hour to reload and went at it again. The Davidians responded with more gunfire. They also tossed the telephone out the front door, a sign that all negotiations had ceased—although survivors claim that the tanks had broken the phone lines. (At this point, if those who said they were using kerosene lamps were correct, and if the tanks had indeed knocked them over, the fires would already have started and spread. However, it would be several hours before that occurred, putting the claim into some doubt.)

The Texas wind was fierce that morning, which was not good for the tactical teams. The FBI continued to broadcast pleas for the Davidians to come out, hoping that at least the women with children would do so. They assured those inside that no one would be harmed, but the Davidians had already seen some of their fellow members led away in the days before in handcuffs and orange prison suits. That was yet another tactical error meant to display force.

Then just a few minutes after noon, the buildings quickly went up in flames and the fire spread fast. Agents close to the buildings heard gunfire, and they assumed that the people inside had decided to end it with a mass suicide. An HRT agent later claimed that he'd seen someone light a fire in front of the building, and several loud explosions inside erupted into a giant plume of black smoke that filled the sky. Helicopters flew back and forth, recording what they could, but no one knew how dangerous it might be to get close.

Branch Davidian compound on fire
Branch Davidian compound on fire

Again a message was broadcast over the loudspeaker that Koresh should send his people out. Only nine emerged. One woman who came out, her clothing in flames, tried to go back in, but was caught by an ATF agent and brought to safety.

Firefighters arrived but the FBI made them keep their distance due to gunfire and the possibility of more explosions. Around 12:45, they entered the building and found numerous incinerated bodies. Most were well beyond immediate identification.

The negotiators, who had worked long hours to ensure a peaceful resolution, were stunned. They had predicted something along these lines if aggression of any kind were used. Even so, they had not imagined the magnitude of what did happen.

And now it was time to investigate the crime scene. For that, another team was called into action, and those agents whose work was done went home. They were aware there would be endless inquiries about how such an event could have occurred.