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.
A Chilling Prophesy
"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."
Breaching an Impasse
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.
"There were times throughout the siege when the negotiators would be promising one thing and the tactical team as they called the guys in the tanks would be doing something totally opposite and going against all the promises of the deals that were made. When we saw our vehicles being smashed up, you get an attitude," Doyle said.
For the entire 51-day length of the siege, Sage kept up his efforts to convince Koresh to emerge from the compound, or at the very least release more of the children. But those efforts seemed to achieve less and less.
By the middle of April, conditions within the compound were deteriorating and the government concluded the Branch Davidian leader had no intention of coming out voluntarily. "We had not had a single person out since the middle of March," Sage remembers. "No one had come out for nearly a month. Nearly a month."
Frustrated by the ongoing saga at Waco, US Attorney General Janet Reno approved a plan to fire CS gas -- a form of tear gas -- into the compound to force the Branch Davidians out. The FBI knew that Koresh had gas masks -- masks that probably wouldn't fit children.
"Abusive as it sounds, and I admit it does," says Sage, "we were banking on that discomfort to convince the parents to bring those kids out. The biggest mistake we made was that we did not accurately estimate the extent of control that David Koresh had over those parents. So we were depending on the parental instinct."
Were Mistakes Made?
But the plan ended in disaster. Even under assault by CS gas, the Branch Davidians refused to emerge. There were reports that some feared being shot if they ventured outside.
Then, around noon on April 19, several fires started almost simultaneously around the large compound, and an inferno quickly engulfed almost everyone inside, including Koresh and the remaining children.
Dick Reavis, author of "Ashes of Waco" and a critic of the government's actions, says: "The FBI said that the reason it went in on April the 19th and the reason it used CS gas in a building, knowing that there are no gas masks for children, was that it wanted to protect those children. In its misguided effort and its arrogance, it killed the children it wanted to save."
Sage insists the FBI made every effort to negotiate a peaceful end to the siege, placing the blame for the tragedy squarely on David Koresh.
The FBI learned some lessons in Waco, he admits, lessons that have resulted in changes in strategy in the years since. But that doesn't ease the pain of knowing that 74 people -- 25 of them children -- died after he spent nearly two months trying to save them.
"Every one of those precious kids -- to this day, when you think back about that -- that fact, it tears your heart out," he said. "How in the world could something with so much effort have ended so tragically? And the lost of any life is -- is incredibly shocking and difficult to process. But, the life of a child is beyond measure. It's a difficult thing to cope with."