20 Years Later: The Waco Siege

Congress Today marks the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the Waco siege, which lasted 50 days and ended with the deaths of 76 men, women, and children on April 19, 1993.

The siege began when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) attempted to serve a search warrant at the Mount Carmel Center ranch, owned and operated by the Branch Davidians religious group. A gun battle ensued at the Carmel Center, located 14 kilometers from Waco in Elk, Texas.

The ATF attempted to serve a warrant to David Koresh, the Branch Davidian leader, when it suspected that the Branch Davidians were violating federal firearms laws with the possible possession and sales of semiautomatic or automatic weapons. They arrived at the ranch with nearly 100 agents and an 80-vehicle convoy. Media involvement and information leaks meant that the Branch Davidians were not taken by surprise when the ATF arrived to serve its warrant.

It is unknown which party fired the first shots – both claim the other – but the February 28th raid led to the deaths of four ATF agents. The 50-day siege that followed fueled the Branch Davidian’s religious beliefs that Judgment Day was at hand. Increasingly aggressive techniques were used to attempt to force the Branch Davidians to surrender, including sleep deprivation (using all-night broadcasts of chanting and the screams of animals being slaughtered), destruction of water tanks, the removal of phone lines and electricity, and other methods. These tactics created a progressively more desperate David Koresh, who as the siege wore on claimed that he was the Second Coming of Christ.

The final assault on the compound on April 19 included the use of tear gas, .50 caliber rifles, and armored vehicles. At noon, fires broke out around the compound. The fire was possibly caused by the Texas Rangers’ use of pyrotechnic Sound and Flash grenades, or started by the Branch Davidians themselves. (The FBI and Texas Rangers maintain that the grenades did not cause the fire.)

Only nine Branch Davidians escaped the building during the fire; the other 76 died, either from inhaling smoke, being buried under rubble, or by suicide. Several investigations were launched in the aftermath of the Waco siege, and numerous ATF agents were removed from their positions after the initial round of investigations. Eight Branch Davidians were convicted on firearms charges.

The events of Waco have inspired anger and unlawful backlash, including Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, who cited the Waco siege as a reason for his act of terrorism which led to the deaths of 168 Americans.

The HSDL collection includes several documents related to the Waco siege:

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