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Remnants of the Waco Siege: Mount Carmel on the 20th Anniversary of the Branch Davidian Disaster

After the Waco siege, gun owners, especially in the South and Michigan, banded together into civilian militias, calling themselves patriots and Constitutionalists. They practiced military maneuvers on weekends and told co-workers that a second American...

Photos of Mount Carmel today by Matt Rainwaters

The incident most people know simply as "Waco" took place on February 28, 1993, when 70 heavily armed agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (a dozen of them in helicopters) made a surprise assault on Mount Carmel, a religious community on 75 acres of rolling, rural plains near Waco, Texas. At the time, the ATF said it launched the raid because it had information that Mount Carmel’s leader, David Koresh—the leader of the Branch Davidians, a splinter group of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church—possessed unregistered AR-15 rifles that had been converted to automatic fire.


Even now, no one can say with certainty who fired the first shots, but some followers of Koresh shot at, or returned fire to, federal agents. After exchanges that lasted nearly an hour, the ATF retreated. It had lost four agents, and 20 others were wounded so badly that they could not walk. Six Davidians also died that day.

Within hours, the FBI took over the effort, sending in tanks to intimidate the holdouts. During the 51-day occupation and siege that followed, two dozen Davidians and their children came out of Mount Carmel to surrender, but most remained inside, feeling like leaving would be like jumping ship on Noah’s Ark.

The media spectacle that followed was built up by daily televised FBI and ATF press conferences. These conferences served to whip the populace into a lynching mood: Who was this preacher Koresh, anyway, to thumb his nose at the law? On April 19, 1993 FBI tanks knocked holes in Mount Carmel and shot tear gas inside, causing the place to go up in flames. Seventy-six residents died in the blaze, including 17 children.

“Some religious fanatics murdered themselves,” President Clinton charged the day afterward—and public opinion went so thoroughly against the Davidians that the Red Cross denied food and clothing to the surviving parents and their children because they had participated in a “civil disorder.”

This year on April 19, shortly after the bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon and a fertilizer plant blew up in Texas, gun rights advocates, libertarians, and Constitutionalists gathered in Waco to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Waco siege. The ceremony was held on the fringes of downtown Waco, in the small auditorium of a museum that has a room devoted to the siege. Most of the attendees were ragtag veterans of gun rights crusades, many of whom had attended previous Waco commemorations. But the meeting drew only a dozen of the some 30 survivors—partly because many of them are from Britain, Australia, and the West Indies—and are today barred from entering the United States.


One of the survivors present for the affair was Clive Doyle, now 72, who lost his daughter Shari in the fire that destroyed Mount Carmel, himself emerging with third-degree burns. Clive was indicted and tried for conspiring to kill federal officers, aiding and abetting in the murder of federal agents, and using a weapon during the commission of a crime. Clive was acquitted in 1994, but eight of his co-defendants drew prison terms, including a businessman named Paul Fatta.

Mount Carmel was not exactly a commune. Paul used his considerable fortune to cover the bills so students of the Bible didn’t have to pay for lodging or food. Koresh said that he had stockpiled the AR-15s as an investment, predicting (correctly) that their price would skyrocket in 1994 after a federal assault-rifle ban. Paul managed the acquisition of Mount Carmel’s weapons and also ran a side business in hunting vests and other paraphernalia. Paul was not at Mount Carmel during the siege. When he learned what had happened, he rushed from Austin back to Waco to join his cohort, but was unable to reach them because of a blockade. Weeks later, he learned that he’d been indicted and turned himself in at Houston—only to be imprisoned for the next 13 years for conspiracy to manufacture automatic weapons.

After the Waco siege, gun owners, especially in the South, Southwest, and Michigan, banded together into civilian militias, calling themselves patriots and Constitutionalists. They practiced military maneuvers on weekends and told co-workers that a second American Revolution was brewing. One of those who ran in these circles was a 27-year-old Army veteran named Timothy McVeigh, who bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, hoping to avenge Ruby Ridge and Waco with a “shot heard 'round the world.” One hundred twenty-eight people died in the blast. The date he chose for the massacre was April 19—the second anniversary of the Mount Carmel fire.

Most of the 75 well-wishers who showed up to the 20th anniversary of Waco were veteran gun rights crusaders. But a few newcomers were on hand as well. One thin young Texan wore colonial garb and identified himself only as Paul Revere, handing out copies of Alex Jones’s Infowars. Clive Doyle addressed the meeting and read the names of all of those who had died, including the four ATF agents. Paul Fatta and the ersatz Revere also spoke.

Like Timothy McVeigh and National Rifle Association Chief Wayne LaPierre, the gun rights people in attendance consider the Mount Carmel dead as martyrs to the Second Amendment. In their view, attempts to pass gun control legislation are infringements on God-given rights. But the Branch Davidians kept their distance from such worldly affairs. They believe that only the “soon return of Christ” can solve America’s problems. Their pessimism about secular affairs and belief in the nearing of “end times,” means that survivors do not belong to the NRA or take part in political activity in any way. The Davidians accept the gun rights allies, but only because religion and politics makes strange bedfellows.