The Raid of the Branch Davidians Cult Compound in Waco, Texas

Branch Davidian Compound Burning
Gregory Smith/Contributor/Corbis Historical

On April 19, 1993, after a 51-day siege, the ATF and the FBI attempted to force David Koresh and the other remaining Branch Davidians out of their Waco, Texas compound. However, when the cult members refused to leave the buildings after being tear-gassed, the buildings went up in a blaze and all but nine died in the fire.

Preparing to Enter the Compound

There were a number of reports that 33-year-old, Branch Davidian cult leader David Koresh had been abusing children. He reportedly would punish children by hitting them with a wooden spoon until they bled or by depriving them of food for an entire day. Also, Koresh had many wives, some of whom were as young as 12.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) also discovered that Koresh was stockpiling a cache of weapons and explosives.

The ATF gathered resources and planned to raid the Branch Davidian compound, known as the Mount Carmel Center, located just outside of Waco, Texas.

With a warrant to search for illegal firearms in hand, the ATF attempted to enter the compound on February 28, 1993.

The Shootout and Stand-Off

A gunfight ensued (debate continues over which side fired the first shot). The shooting lasted nearly two hours, leaving four ATF agents and five Branch Davidians dead.

For 51 days, the ATF and the FBI waited outside the compound, using negotiators to try to end the stand-off peacefully. Although a number of children and a few adults were released during this period, 84 men, women, and children stayed in the compound.

Storming the Waco Compound

On April 19, 1993, the ATF and FBI attempted to end the siege by using a form of tear gas called CS gas (chlorobenzylidenemalononitrile), a decision approved by US Attorney General Janet Reno.

Early in the morning, specialized tank-like vehicles (Combat Engineering Vehicles) punctured holes in the compound's walls and inserted CS gas. The government was hoping that the gas would safely push the Branch Davidians out of the compound.

In response to the gas, the Branch Davidians shot back. Just after noon, the wooden compound caught on fire.

While nine people escaped the blaze, 76 perished either by gunshot, fire or collapsed rubble inside the compound. Twenty-three of the dead were children. Koresh was also found dead, from a gunshot wound to the head.

Who Started the Fire

Nearly immediately, questions were raised as to how the fire was started and who was responsible. For years, many people blamed the FBI and ATF for the catastrophe, believing that the government officials had knowingly used flammable tear gas or shot into the compound to keep survivors from leaving the fiery compound.

Further investigations have shown that the fire was purposely set by the Davidians themselves. 

Of the nine survivors of the fire, all nine were charged and sentenced to some jail time. Eight were found guilty of either voluntary manslaughter or illegal firearms, or both. The ninth survivor, Kathy Schroeder, was convicted of resisting arrest.

Although some of the survivors were sentenced to up to 40 years in prison, appeals ended up shortening their prison terms. As of 2007, all nine were out of prison.

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Rosenberg, Jennifer. "The Raid of the Branch Davidians Cult Compound in Waco, Texas." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Rosenberg, Jennifer. (2020, August 27). The Raid of the Branch Davidians Cult Compound in Waco, Texas. Retrieved from Rosenberg, Jennifer. "The Raid of the Branch Davidians Cult Compound in Waco, Texas." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 18, 2021).