Nearly 24 years after the Branch Davidian standoff began near Waco, some federal agents are opening up about their experiences that resulted in the worst day in the history of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and ultimately the deaths of some 70 people inside the compound more than seven weeks later.
"I've decided I'm never going to forget, and I owe it to the guys who were killed to tell their story," ATF Agent Gary Orchowski told the Houston Chronicle in a story published Sunday.
Four agents were killed Feb. 28, 1993, when more than 130 ATF special agents and support staff from Houston, Dallas and New Orleans showed up to execute search warrants for illegal stockpiles of automatic weapons and explosives at the compound. They also planned to arrest the group's 33-year-old leader, David Koresh, who was accused of having sex with his followers' children.
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"We were more or less looking at it like a humanitarian mission," Orchowski, 55, now the assistant special agent in charge of the ATF's Houston field office, said. "A bunch of us had gone to Walmart. ... In our vests, there were candy bars we planned on giving to the kids."
Instead, they were greeted with gunfire. Investigators later determined the people inside the compound had been tipped about the raid.
Special Agent Eric Evers with the ATF in Houston remembers bleeding in a ditch as bullets flew. He'd been shot five times. An armored vest stopped three rounds but one other pierced the webbing at his shoulder and another hit him in the arm.
"I've learned the meaning of sheer terror," said Evers, now 52.
Orchowski was yards away, in cold, muddy water.
It wasn't until last year that the government returned to them the body armor they wore that day.
Orchowski keeps his bullet-damaged helmet on a small coffee table in his office.
Evers' armored vest shows bullet marks, red earth, sand and a maroon stain around a small hole. He keeps the body armor at his office, wrapped in gray plastic.
"What do you do with it?" he asks. "It's not like I'm going to frame it and hang it on the wall."
Of the four ATF agents killed, Steven D. Willis was from the Houston field office and three were based in New Orleans: Conway C. LeBleu, Todd W. McKeehan, and Robert J. Williams. Six Branch Davidians also died in the gunfire.
The ensuing siege ended in a fire April 19, 1993. The fallout included internal scrutiny that led the ATF to retool its intelligence gathering and training and re-assess its operations.
Agent Roland Ballesteros, 54, who confronted Koresh at the front door to the compound and was shot in the thumb, said decisions today might be different.
"Nowadays, I see things, and we do things, and it's more like: `Ok, let's just check ourselves. ... Everybody goes home tonight,"' he said.