Waco journalist reflects on the tragic ending of the Branch Davidian standoff

Published: Apr. 19, 2023 at 8:09 AM CDT|Updated: Apr. 19, 2023 at 9:20 AM CDT
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WACO, Texas (KWTX) - Thirty years ago, more than 75 people died in a roaring fire at the Branch Davidian Compound, ending the 51-day standoff between law enforcement and the Branch Davidians. A KWTX reporter covered the standoff and remembers the events that led up to the tragic outcome.

Tommy Witherspoon, who reported for the Tribune-Herald during the time of the Siege, said he covered the start of the raid on Feb. 28, 1993.

“We were there to cover the raid, and we ended up getting shot at and landing a ditch for two and a half hours,” he said.

COMPLETE COVERAGE: THE SIEGE: 30 YEARS LATER (KWTX archive footage and special reports)

Witherspoon said, after that, he covered daily news about the standoff, including when David Koresh released children.

On April 19, 1993, he said it was just another day in the newsroom covering the standoff until they heard Army tanks inject tear gas into the compound.

“Then the fire broke out, and the wind was blowing,” Witherspoon said. “I remember distinctly watching the TVs and saying, ‘When are all the people coming out?’ Surely they would come out of a big fire, like roaring fire, and then it turns out that that was David Koresh’s self-fulfilling prophecy, that they would die at the hands of the government.”

Over 75 people did not come out of the fully-engulfed compound alive, and over 20 of those who died were children, which struck Witherspoon as the saddest part of it all.

He said he went out to the scene while the building was still smoldering and law enforcement officers were scattered everywhere.

“We went out there and mainly they wouldn’t let anybody get too close at first because it was still smoldering, and they had thousands and thousands, if not millions of rounds of ammunition, they’re still cooking off,” he said. “They had a big investigation...with multiple agencies investigating the fire.”

Now, near the grounds, names of both Branch Davidians and ATF agents who died are engraved in the memorial at the Mount Carmel Center.

“Then, they’ve got... memorial statues,” he said. “Then, you go in and go around the corner and the chapel is up. That’s about all that’s out there now, and where the compound was is just overgrown out of the grass.”

Thirty years later, there are still unanswered questions with more documentaries and research still coming out.

“It was a huge story. But it’s just 30 years later, after the Branch Davidians,” Witherspoon said. “It’s kind of hard to look at the country now and see how far we’ve come in in terms of this anti government sentiment.”