By April 19, the FBI was tired of waiting for Vernon Howell to get the message.
After talking for seven weeks with the self-styled prophet, there was no sign Howell, also known as David Koresh, and the other Branch Davidians were coming out of Mount Carmel.
It was time, the FBI commanders concluded, to end the standoff.
“David, you have had your 15 minutes of fame,” negotiators told Howell via loudspeakers minutes before the fire.
A Justice Department report on the FBI’s role in the 51-day siege, released in Washington on Friday, details those final hours of the standoff. The plan set in motion at dawn on April 19 was envisioned to take as long as 48 hours, a schedule the FBI accelerated as Branch Davidians began shooting at the armored vehicles that approached the compound.
The FBI plan, which had first been discussed on March 22, was to use armored vehicles to pump tear gas into the compound in stages designed to gradually increase the pressure on those inside.
If the cultists had not surrendered in 48 hours, the armored vehicles were to start smashing in the walls in another bid to step up the pressure.
Howell, however, had other plans and about 80 Branch Davidians died in a fire that started about six hours after the first tear gas was inserted.
Arson investigators said the blaze was started by someone inside the building, and autopsy reports showed that some of the Branch Davidians, including several children, had been shot or stabbed to death.
The Justice Department review cleared the FBI of any wrongdoing in its attempt to end the standoff, blaming Howell for the apparent mass suicide and/or murder.
The FBI first pitched the tear gas plan to Attorney General Janet Reno on April 12.
Reno’s first reaction: “Why now, why not wait?”
The negotiations, the FBI told Reno, were going nowhere.
The situation also was unstable in the prairie surrounding the compound. The cult’s formidable firepower posed a threat to law enforcement and to nearby residents.
Inside Mount Carmel, there was evidence that deteriorating sanitary conditions posed a threat to the cult’s children.
After several days of meetings with FBI officials, military experts and others on why an assault was needed, the possible effects of the CS gas to be used and the chances of mass suicide, Reno approved the plan on April 17.
Two days later, the FBI’s elite Hostage Rescue Team was ready.
At 5:56 a.m., FBI negotiator Byron Sage telephoned the compound to tell Howell’s top aide, Steve Schneider, of the tear gas. It took about three minutes for Schneider to come to the phone.
At 5:57 a.m., HRT commander Richard Rogers ordered two armored Combat Engineered Vehicles to the compound. One— CEV-1 — to the front-left of the building and the other — CEV-2 — to the right.
Meanwhile, Sage talked to Schneider.
“We’re in the process of putting tear gas into the building. We will not enter the building,” Sage said.
Schneider responded: “You are going to spray tear gas into the building?”
Sage replied, “In the building . . . no, we are not entering the building.”
End of talks
The telephone was then disconnected and thrown out the compound. The FBI and the Branch Davidians never talked on the phone again.
Sage then began reading a lengthy prepared script over loudspeakers for the cultists to hear.
“This is not an assault,” Sage said.
“You are under arrest. The standoff is over.”
The message was repeated several times over the next six hours.
At 6 a.m., Rogers ordered CEV-1 to insert liquid tear gas into first-floor windows in the front-left of the building.
Four minutes later, FBI snipers began reporting that the Branch Davidians were shooting at and hitting the CEVs.
The gunfire forced the FBI to speed up the use of the gas.
By 6:31, the CEVs and four Bradley Fighting Vehicles, which had been launching in tear gas canisters called ferret rounds, had gassed the entire building.
During the gassing, the Branch Davidians continued to fire at the vehicles. The FBI never returned fire, according to the Justice Department.
At 6:45, Sage told the Branch Davidians via the loudspeaker that more gas would be inserted if they did not come out in two minutes.
The promise was kept, and the Bradleys delivered more gas through windows where movement or gunfire were detected.
At 7:04, the HRT reported that all sides of the building had again been gassed.
At about 7:30, CEV-1 broke through the front-right corner of the building, injecting more tear gas. It was met by several rounds of Branch Davidian gunfire.
At 7:45 a.m., FBI officials began calling FBI field offices looking for more tear gas canisters. Eventually, 48 ferret rounds were delivered from Houston.
Fifteen minutes later, the FBI asked the National Guard to make arrangements to refuel the armored vehicles, “indicating that even after the FBI had escalated the pace of the gas insertions, it expected the standoff to last many more hours,” according to the Justice Department report.
At 9:10, the Branch Davidians unfurled a banner from a window on the front side reading, “We want our phone fixed.” Seven minutes later, CEV-1 broke through the front door, allowing snipers inside the building.
By 9:28 a.m., the HRT was again running out of tear gas and CEV-2 was knocked out of service by mechanical problems.
The weather also wasn’t cooperating. High winds were lessening the effect of the gas.
HRT commander Rogers and other FBI commanders ordered CEV-1 to enlarge the hole in the front of the building, giving the Branch Davidians more room to leave the compound.
A third CEV, which was not equipped to insert tear gas, was ordered to break through the rear of the building near the gymnasium, creating another escape route.
Between 9:35 a.m. and 9:54 a.m., negotiators broadcasting instructions into the compound for someone to retrieve the telephone. However, negotiators said the phone would be reconnected only if the cultists indicated they were ready to give up.
“The Davidians never provided such a signal,” the report states.
Cult member Graeme Craddock, who survived the fire, went outside to pick up the phone.
Craddock took the phone inside but did not give any sign that the cultists were ready to surrender.
Over the next hour, it was quiet.
Reno, who had been monitoring the operation from Washington, left for a speaking engagement in nearby Baltimore because it appeared the operation would continue for several hours.
At 11:30 a.m., there was renewed activity.
The substitute CEV-2 broke through the back side of the compound to make room for departing Branch Davidians and insert more tear gas. Though unsure if the telephone line was still intact, negotiators again tried to call the compound. The phone rang 20 times but there was no answer.
At 11:45 a.m., a wall in the right-rear side of the building collapsed. Agents in a forward command post reported that they could see inside the building.
By noon, the armored vehicles had made six gas deliveries in six hours. At 12:08 p.m., CEV-1 backed away from the front-right side of the building.
Two minutes later, at 12:10 p.m., smoke was seen coming from the right side of the building and from the back, near the kitchen.
Mount Carmel was on fire.