On February 28, 1993, ATF agents attempted to serve a search and arrest warrant at a religious compound run by a sect of the Branch Dividians in Axtell, Texas. The ATF had received information that led them to believe that the group, run by David Koresh, was stockpiling weapons. The group had in fact been stockpiling weapons because it was their belief that the second coming of Jesus would cause a violent apocalypse. Although the initial siege on February 28th was supposed to be a surprise to avoid the Branch Dividians being armed at the time, they were tipped off and were fully armed and prepared to defend the compound and their leader.
At around 9:45am, the ATF stormed the compound with dozens of armed agents and several attack helicopters. Although it is still uncertain as to which side fired first, shots were fired on both sides and a two-hour shootout ensued. The Branch Dividians were able to hit the helicopters with gunfire, which subsequently landed safely. They also shot and killed 4 ATF agents, Steve Willis, Robert Williams, Todd McKeehan, and Conway Charles LeBleu, and wounded 16 others. 5 Branch Dividians were killed in the shootout, two of which were killed by the Branch Dividians after they were mortally wounded by the ATF. At around 11:30am, a ceasefire was negotiated and both sides stopped firing. The Branch Dividians began to bury their dead on the property of the compound. At around 5:00pm an ATF agent shot and killed another Branch Dividian, Michael Schroeder, who may or may not have fired a pistol at the ATF agent first.
The FBI took over the operation due to the deaths of federal agents, and set up contact with David Koresh. For the next 51 days, a team of FBI negotiators tried to reason with Koresh and other leaders inside the compound to agree to a deal with them and end the siege. Within the first few days, the FBI was able to negotiate the release of 19 children, but 23 children remained in the compound. In interviews with the released children, it was discovered that they had been sexually and physically abused by Branch Dividians. The FBI also learned that Koresh was a polygamist, and had fathered children with several of his underage wives.
The tactics used by the FBI became more and more aggressive. They cut all water, food, and electricity access to the compound, forcing the Branch Dividians to survive off of their stockpiled military rations. They also attempted to use loud speakers to disrupt the sleep of the Branch Dividians, which proved to only reinforce their religious beliefs that they were experiencing the end-times. Eleven more Branch Dividians were allowed to leave by Koresh, and they were immediately arrested.
After more than a month, the U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno approved an attack on the compound after it was determined that the situation inside the compound was deteriorating and children’s lives were in danger. On April 19, 1993, the FBI used heavily armed vehicles to puncture holes in the compound’s main building and pumped in tear gas in an attempt to get the remaining Branch Dividians to surrender. Although the amount of gas pumped into the building only increased, many Branch Dividians hunkered down in a bunker under the building or used gas masks; none left the compound.
At around 12:00pm, 3 fires broke out on the compound. Although it is still unclear what exactly caused the fires, it is widely believed that they were due to sparks from gunfire from the Branch Dividians igniting the tear gas. Due to the large amount of gas in the compound at the time, the fires spread rapidly. Only 9 people were able to leave the compound after the fire started, the other 76 were either buried under rubble, suffocated due to the fires, and at least 20 were shot in what was believed to be mercy killings. David Koresh was believed to have been shot by his top aide, Steve Schneider, who then turned the gun on himself when it was clear that they would not escape.
The handling of the Waco Siege received outcry from the public, who had watched the compound burn on live TV. Although investigations later uncovered that at least 2 of the fires were started well within the walls of the compound, away from where the ATF/FBI had access, much of the public believed that the government’s actions directly started the fires and caused the deaths. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh would point to the Waco Siege as directly influencing him to attack the government.