February 28, 1993, a raid by agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms sparked the biggest firefight in the history of American law enforcement and continued debate 20 years later. Two agents who were there say the disastrous raid led to fundamental changes in ATF.
It was unprecedented in the annals of law enforcement," said former ATF agent Tom Crowley. "The amount of weapons we were facing. Grenades, (50 caliber weapons) it was just unbelievable."
The firefight lasted nearly two hours, with an estimated 15-thousand rounds fired
Tom Crowley and Robert White were in the back of a cattle trailer -- the first to arrive.
The plan was to search the complex,called Mount Carmel, and arrest the leader of a religious sect called the Branch Davidians, David Koresh, suspected of manufacturing machine guns and explosives.
But the Branch Davidians were waiting -- and a TV photographer from Waco -- captured the result on tape.
"They were firing before we even got off the trailer," said Robert White.
"And I see the front door and all you see is bullets coming through the front door." Tom Crowley rushed the building. "Myself and six of seven agents we hit the ground and go right up against the compound. They're shooting out the windows. they're shooting out the walls. They were throwing grenades out the window. It was just so surreal."
White quickly was pinned down behind a Chevy Blazer. "There were times we were taking extremely heavy fire. The windows of the Blazer were blowing out and falling over on us. I kept thinking if you get hit don't flop backwards because then you'd be in the line of fire."
White was hit in the shoulder -- the bullet almost piercing his vest -- penetrating flesh.
"It just pushed down into my shoulder about an inch and a half and those last two layers of kevlar held it so it stopped there."
He later found a crease across his neck, a third round lodged in his helmet.
Inside the compound a Branch Davidian named Wayne Martin called 9-1-1 - reaching Lt.. Larry Lynch of the local sheriff's office.
"There's 75 men around our building and they're shooting at us at Mount Carmel," Martin screamed on the phone. "Tell them there are children and women in here and to call it off."
But local dispatchers and the ATF had no way of communicating. Finally Lynch would reach Mount Carmel's leader, David Koresh. It took still more time to get Koresh on the line with ATF negotiator Jim Cavanaugh, who later told the story to Congress.
"I had a radio mike in one ear with an agent pleading for his life. And I had this guy on the phone who thought he was god."
Three cease fires were negotiated before one finally held. The agents retreated and then returned -- to carry out the dead and wounded. Tom Crowley was one of those carrying out agent Kenny King -- one of those seriously injured. "It looks like we're carrying him on a stretcher, actually we're carrying him on a ladder. And we get him to an ambulance">>
Sixteen agents were wounded. Five Branch Davidians dead -- several others -- including David Koresh were wounded.
"Of course, we had agents shot up on the roof," remembered Robert White. "I climbed the ladder there in front of the windows. You knew if they started shooting there wasn't anything you could do about it."
Initially, ATF raid leaders claimed publicly to be unaware -- that the element of surprise had been lost -- but that story quickly unraveled.
There's evidence now that dozens of people in Waco knew about the pending raid - including the Branch Davidians.
An undercover agent, Robert Rodriguez, would later testify before Congress that Koresh told him earlier that morning that he knew ATF was coming -- that he'd begged Raid leader Chuck Sarabyn to call it off. "The first thing that came out of my mouth is 'They know Chuck, they know! They know we're coming."
"The people that made that decision were trained to make that decision," said Robert White. "They went on and went with it I think because we had already spent so much time and money."
Tom Crowley agreed. "It came out because agents in the field made sure the truth came out. It was the agents that were there and knew what happened."
A Treasury Department investigation concluded that operational security was lacking and the raid should have been called off -- that agents were badly outgunned, that there was no contingency plan when things went wrong. Field agents were fired, ATF's director was replaced.
"There was a lot of fallout, years and years from the day February 28th," said Tom Crowley. "The biggest thing that weighs on my mind is we cannot forget the four agents that were murdered that day. And that's what you got to remember. These agents were murdered and they never got the true respect that they deserve."
Tom Crowley and Robert White are both retired now. They believe valuable lessons were learned and that ATF has made improvements in training, planning and medical care.
What followed the raid was a 51-day siege that ended in a horrible fire that killed 76 men, women and children, including David Koresh.
In coming weeks we will hear from others who were inside the compound during the siege and fire, with a very different take on what happened there.
KDFW FOX 4
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