Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
April 20, 1993
FBI gave a warning, then began its assault

The Waco siege ends
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WACO, Texas - The end began with a phone call.

A few minutes before dawn, the phone that had been the vehicle for hundreds of hours of fruitless negotiation rang one final time.

The FBI had a simple message: The time for talk is over, we are moving in with tear gas, surrender now.

The news was not well-received inside the compound where David Koresh and his followers had held forth under siege for 51 days. The line abruptly went dead.

Inside, cult members took up their weapons and posts to await the assault.

Outside, there had been no routine shift change at 5 a.m., only a flow of armed officers to join those already on duty. They did not stop for the normal chat as they passed through the checkpoint where reporters stood watch.

Though they were two miles from the cult compound, the reporters were warned to "take cover" at 6 a.m. "It's coming down," an officer said.

Already, armored vehicles driven by FBI agents had closed in on the buildings. They were met by gunfire, authorities said.

"This is not an assault," said a voice booming from FBI loudspeakers directed at the compound. "Do not fire. If you fire, your fire will be returned.

"We are introducing nonlethal tear gas. Exit the compound now and follow instructions. . . . Come out now, and you will not be harmed. . . . No one will be injured. . . . Do not subject yourself to any more discomfort."

The FBI hoped that, at the very least, the women inside would grab their children and flee the compound. But there was no exodus, and an armored vehicle crashed a 10-foot-wide hole through the wall to one side of the front door.

Thus began a methodical battering of the building. Armored vehicles mounted with rams punched hole after hole in the side of the shingled building.

FBI spokesman Bob Ricks said cult members fired more than 75 rounds at their assailants before the first tear gas was sprayed through the fresh holes.

At a 10:30 a.m. news conference, Ricks said that the FBI planned to pour tear gas into the compound throughout the day.

"We will continue to gas them and make their lives as uncomfortable as possible until they do exit the compound," he said.

There was no communication from those inside, and authorities believed the phone may have been thrown from a window after the final early-morning telephone conversation. That seemed confirmed by a banner hung from a second-floor window in the middle of the morning. It said, "We want our phones fixed."

One of the few cult members who did emerge yesterday, Renos Avraam, 29, told authorities that the children - there were believed to be at least 17 inside - were gathered in their upstairs bunk room. "He said he heard people saying, 'The fire has been lit, the fire has been lit,' " Ricks said.

Another member who escaped the compound, Graeme Craddock, 31, said that lantern fuel had been spread throughout the buildings by cult members, Ricks said.

Agents circling the building saw movement inside, Ricks said, and identified several cult members - including one in a black uniform and wearing a gas mask - lighting several fires.

The first flames tumbled out a corner window and began licking at the beige wall of the wooden building.

It was just past noon, and an acrid black shroud was about to envelope the Texas prairie skyline.

Within seconds the fire burst through a second window. There was little water inside - federal agents disrupted the wells serving the compound weeks ago. And, perhaps, there was little inclination to fight the fire anyway. Koresh had written that federal agents would be "devoured by fire" in a letter to authorities last week.

As Ricks watched the flames pour from the building he said he thought, "Oh, my God, they're killing themselves."

The flames spread with incredible speed from one end of the building to the other, emerging from a window at the opposite end within two or three minutes.

By then the entire southern end of the compound was engulfed by a fireball. A massive black cloud of smoke, caught by winds whipping past 40 m.p.h., towered over the blaze and could be seen a dozen miles away.

A woman in flames ran from the compound, Ricks said. She stumbled and then tried to return to the burning building. An FBI agent jumped from an armored vehicle and pulled her away, Ricks said.

There had been speculation that the cult members would repair to tunnels beneath the compound where they could weather any assault. But as the mushroom of fire billowed above, it seemed certain that all the oxygen below had been sucked up by the flames.

Late in the day, Ricks acknowledged that there had been "massive loss of life," and he blamed it on Koresh.

"He wanted to have as many people killed in that compound as possible," Ricks said. "That is why (the compound) was named the Ranch Apocalypse."

Inquirer Staff Writer Jeffrey Fleishman shared credit for this story.. home page   
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