WACO Tragedy – 25 years on

A mixture of dust and dirt kicked into the air as the old, beaten down cattle trucked rumbled down the worn gravel path that connected the street with the flimsy built two story building.

In the back of the rattling cattle trucks lay agents from the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) agency, hidden under tarps, entrusted with the role of serving and conducting a search and arrest warrant.

This was the image confronting the Branch Davidians, an off shoot of the Seventh Day Adventist church, twenty-five years ago as they cowered inside the compound known as Mount Carmel on the outskirts of Waco, Texas.

The male members of the religious group had been instructed to take up defensive arms, the woman and children to hide, while the groups leader David Koresh, born Vernon Howell, went outside the front door to meet the approaching agents.

With guard dogs barking inside their cage by the front door, their peaceful day shattered, and almost eighty ATF agents bursting from the cattle trucks, broadcast vans from media outlets who had been invited to the raid by the government agency screeching to a halt kicking dirt and rocks into the air, and an unarmed David Koresh holding his hands in the air pleading for calmness, shots rung out and both sides began to exchange a hail of bullets.

A frantic 911 phone call made by Wayne Martin from inside the Mount Carmel compound begging for the shooting to stop was the first contact in a long list of discussions that would embarrass an entire agency, last 51 days and have a tragic fiery conclusion that would see 76 Branch Davidian members perish.

By the time Wayne Martin had made his 911 phone call begging for the shooting to stop the Branch Davidian leader David Koresh had been wounded by a bullet to the abdomen, another bullet through his right hand, and numerous others from both sides had been struck.

“Tell them there are women and children in here and to call it off,” Martin said as he was connected to Lieutenant Lynch of the Waco Sheriffs Department.

As Wayne Martin was speaking to Lt. Lynch the dispatcher was having trouble getting into contact with the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms communications team, it was at this point many of the survivors of the Waco tragedy claim that Australian Peter Gent, then aged 24, was gunned down by helicopters who had accompanied the ATF during its raid on the fateful morning.

Gent had been inside the water tower painting, hearing the commotion had popped his head out of the top of the tower to see what was going on when he was struck by bullets fired from the helicopter – reportedly becoming the first Branch Davidian to be killed in the conflict.

The body of Gent was caught up on the ladder where it stayed for over a week despite the Branch Davidians asking the FBI Negotiators for permission to bring him down and bury him with dignity, a request that was denied.

This forced the Branch Davidians, under the darkness of night, to sneak out at night and retrieve the body of the Australian before heading out the following day to bury him in front of camera crews – the only way they knew they wouldn’t be shot by FBI agents who had taken over the situation after the failed ATF raid.

By the time a cease fire was agreed to between David Koresh and the ATF shortly after 11:30am, almost two and a half hours after the first shots rung out, four agents – Steve Willis, Robert Williams, Todd McKeehan, and Conway Charles LeBleu – had been killed, a further sixteen injured.

While Peter Gent, Winston Blake, Perry Jones, Peter Hipsman, and Jaydean Wendell had been gunned down by the government agency.

Negotiations immediately started for the Branch Davidians to surrender to the agents, however, the negotiations quickly broke down when six hours after the ceasefire was negotiated the ATF Agents gunned down Michael Schroeder as he attempted to re-enter the compound.

Schroeder was shot five times in the back, once in the heart and once in the eye. Initially media reported that he had been attempting to break out of the compound but was later corrected when it was determined that he had been at work during the initial siege and he had been trying to get back to the compound to be with his wife and children.
A 51-day siege followed the ceasefire, in which members of the religious group slowly left the compound to waiting FBI agents.

“People were free to come and go as they wished, they were not told they had to stay, and no one was told they had to go,” Kevin Jones, who was one of the children who left the compound during the siege recalls.

FBI Negotiators were facing an uphill battle from the beginning, with their efforts to coax the Branch Davidians out of their compound being heavily under minded by the Hostage Rescue Team who would continuously break the promises negotiators had made to David Koresh and his followers.

After cutting the power to the Mount Carmel Complex the Branch Davidians had resorted to using kerosene lamps to light the dark corridors of the building.

51-days of waiting for Koresh to decipher the seven seals of the bible as he had proclaimed he was in the process off, the Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) had the approval of newly appointed Attorney General Janet Reno to force the religious group out, claiming to then President Bill Clinton that the stand off was costing millions of dollars a week, and that David Koresh was sexually abusing and physically assaulting children – both claims in which limited proof has been made available by government agencies or accusers.

They moved forward with this plan by firing tear gas into the building, and using their tanks to punch ‘exit holes’ into various walls around the compound.

Within minutes of the ‘exit holes’ being punched into the walls of the compound fire broke out, only nine Branch Davidians were able to escape the burning building to safety – in total 76 Branch Davidians perished in the fire including Australians Dayland Gent (3), Nicole Elizabeth Little (nee Gent) (24), and Aisha Gyarfas Summers (17).

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