On the 30th anniversary of the devastating fire which claimed the lives of 76 Branch Davidians—members of a religious sect headquartered in Waco, Texas—the hosts of House Beautiful’s podcast, Dark House, investigate the conflict-ridden history of the 77-acre property at the center of the tragedy.
For 51 days in the spring of 1993, all eyes were on New Mount Carmel Center, an isolated ranch eight miles east of Waco, Texas, that served as the home and headquarters of a religious sect known as the Branch Davidians. The community had defied categorization for decades—many considered it a cult, while others firmly believed it to be as legitimate a religion as any other legally recognized church. Classification aside, by the early 1990s the group, led at the time by 33-year-old self-proclaimed prophet David Koresh, was suspected of illegally converting semi-automatic guns to be fully-automatic. On the morning of February 28, 1993, seventy-six agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco (ATF) descended on the compound, planning to enter the building, locate the stockpile of weapons, and arrest Koresh. But the operation went horribly wrong. News of the impending raid had reached the camp that morning, and Koresh and his followers were armed and ready to defend themselves when the ATF arrived. Four federal agents and six Branch Davidians were killed in the chaotic and violent two-hour shootout that ensued.
That night, the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team arrived and set up a perimeter, surrounding the 43,000-square-foot building with a fleet of military vehicles and tanks. Negotiators began calling into the compound’s phone line in a tireless effort to convince the adults inside to surrender—or at the very least, send their children out—but progress was painfully slow. The Branch Davidians were Bible-literalists who believed not only that the apocalyptic events depicted in the Book of Revelation were imminent, but that Koresh, who claimed to be a modern-day Messiah, would be the one to initiate said events by breaking open the Seven Seals. Having stockpiled ammunition and MREs in preparation for a fight to the death against Babylon (translation: the government), the faithful had the means to hold out inside Mount Carmel for quite some time.
Establishing trust between both sides proved to be a next-to-impossible task. On March 2, Koresh told negotiators that he and his followers would come out if his hour-long, taped sermon was aired on a national radio program. The FBI made good on their end of the bargain, but Koresh reneged, saying that God had since told him to wait to surrender. Officials quickly learned that the Branch Davidians, who adhered only to the commands of God—as written in the Bible or spoken through Koresh—had no regard for secular laws or the agents who enforced them. A growing disconnect between the FBI’s tactical and negotiation teams only exacerbated the situation.
As the weeks wore on, agents stationed outside the building began using a massive PA system to broadcast a symphony of dissonant sound effects—including babies crying and a dentist’s drill whirring—night after night, depriving the Branch Davidians of sleep. This strategy, and other efforts put forth by the tactical team in an attempt to force the group out of their compound, did little to bring about their surrender. On the contrary, the use of such intimidation tactics by agents undermined the messaging put forth by negotiators, causing them to lose what little ground they had managed to gain with the sect. By mid-April, patience was wearing thin and pressure was mounting on FBI lead agents to bring the conflict to a close. All the while, news teams from across the country remained camped out at a designated roadblock roughly two miles from the 77-acre property, watching and waiting to see how the standoff would end.
On April 19th, they got their answer. Around 6:30 a.m., FBI tanks began driving their gun barrels directly through the walls of Mount Carmel, pumping hundreds of rounds of tear gas inside. By noon, a disastrous fire broke out and quickly spread throughout the building. Only nine people managed to escape before the entire compound burned to the ground with 76 Branch Davidians—including 23 children and the sect’s leader, David Koresh—still inside.
To Koresh’s followers, their battle with “Babylon” culminated in flames just as their leader had prophesied. But this was hardly the end; it would be years before the resulting trials and investigations revolving around the siege were finished. As for New Mount Carmel Center, the fire marked the beginning of a new chapter in its complicated history which, records show, had been plagued by controversy, public scrutiny, and criminal activity since long before the tragic events of 1993.