Coincidences, coincidences. First, letters containing deadly poisons mailed to the mighty in Washington, days after a deadly terrorist attack. In 2001, it was 9/11 and the anthrax scare; this week the Boston Marathon, followed by the ricin letters to President Obama and a Mississippi senator. And now a place called Waco.
Today, the name of the central Texas city was shorthand for Wednesday night’s blast, apparently an accident, at the West Fertiliser plant 20 miles to the north – an explosion that registered as powerful as a small earthquake. But exactly 20 years ago today Waco denoted an event that was anything but accidental, and quite literally an apocalypse for scores of religious sect members who died in a sea of fire, gas, and bullets.
The siege of the Mount Carmel compound, a few miles east of Waco, had begun on 28 February 1993, barely a month into Bill Clinton’s presidency. That day four federal agents died in an initial raid on the headquarters of a group of Branch Davidians, as they tried to execute a warrant to search for arms believed to be stockpiled inside by David Koresh, the sect’s charismatic, tyrannical leader.
Koresh had seized control of the compound after a split within the Branch Davidians in 1987. His control over his 100-odd followers, as they awaited the Day of Judgement and the Second Coming, was absolute, amid reports that he abused children, and had taken many under-age female followers as concubines.
After the failed initial raid, the FBI began a siege of the compound that lasted 51 days. A media army arrived, but was allowed no closer than a mile from the compound, with which all communications were severed. In the morning there were FBI briefings, often focused on a search for Biblical clues as to what Koresh might be planning. In the afternoon, reporters used binoculars to watch the compound.
The consensus seemed to be that a climax would come at Easter, which fell that year on 11 April. But no earthly immolation or resurrection occurred, and the wait for something to happen dragged on. On 19 April, it did.
Mr Clinton, by all accounts, had wanted to wait the Branch Davidians out. But the cost was growing, amid warnings that conditions inside Mount Carmel were fast deteriorating, and finally the President authorised the FBI to go in.
Armoured vehicles smashed holes in the walls, and tear gas was pumped in. Some Branch Davidians opened fire; the FBI fired back.
Finally, a series of fires and explosions rocked the complex. Nine Davidians managed to leave, but 76 died inside, including Koresh.
The survivors were tried, and sentenced to up to 40 years in jail. The last of them were released from prison in 2007. But anger at the FBI’s handling of the case was widespread, especially on the anti-government far right. That anger spurred the militant Timothy McVeigh to choose 19 April 1995 for the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City – until 9/11 the deadliest terrorist outrage on US soil.