Fourteen years after the 51-day face-off between government agents and the Branch Davidian religious sect began near Waco, Texas, retired FBI negotiator Byron Sage remains tormented by the disastrous outcome of the siege.
At least 74 people -- including 25 children -- perished when fire consumed the complex on April 19, 1993, after weeks of fruitless talks between Sage and Branch Davidian leader David Koresh. "When the fire started," Sage remembers, "I looked at that building just hoping and praying that I'd see those kids coming out. And there were no kids."
The siege began on February 28, 1993, when agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) raided the Branch Davidian ranch at Mount Carmel. There had long been allegations of child abuse and illegal weaponry within the compound, but the arrival of the ATF that day precipitated a shootout that killed four agents and six Branch Davidians.
Sage quickly became part of the FBI team surrounding the ranch and was one of several negotiators who worked without rest for weeks on end, hoping to bring about a peaceful an end to the standoff.
"I will never forget the first time I talked to David Koresh," he says. "Shots were still being fired, so it had to be somewhere around midday. And I said, 'Do I call you David? Koresh? How do you pronounce that last name?' And with shots being fired in the background and people screaming and all this chaos, he said, just as calmly as could be, 'Mr. Sage, have you ever heard a person die?' I said, 'Yes, I have.' And he said, 'Then you know how to pronounce my name.' I said, 'What do you mean by that?' He said, 'It's like that last exhalation of breath. It's Koresh.' And hair went up on the back of my neck and -- I just knew we were in for one heck of a time."
Still, government negotiators did have some early success.
"In the afternoon of the first day, we started getting children out. And that was an extremely good sign. We tried to get them all out. David's response was he wasn't gonna send them (all) out. He would send them out two by two. Everything was biblical. Everything was two by two as if they were coming off of Noah's Ark," said Sage.
Almost two dozen children were released in the early days of the siege. But many more -- some the biological children of Koresh, whom he'd fathered with a number of different women -- remained inside the compound.
"Finally, on the 7th of March, I can remember vividly that David, he got upset and he said, 'Wait a minute. You don't understand. The rest of these kids are my kids. They're not coming out.' And there was just absolute silence in the negotiation room because everybody recognized the magnitude of that statement."
As the days stretched into weeks, negotiations reached an impasse and the government gradually increased the pressure on David Koresh.
Although Sage steadfastly defends the FBI's actions during the siege, Clive Doyle, one of the few Branch Davidians to emerge alive from the inferno that ultimately consumed the compound, says the US government's tactics -- like bombarding the compound with noise and crushing cars and motorcycles parked outside -- were often provocative.