Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms returned to Waco Saturday amid clouds and light showers.
The gloomy morning paralleled that of Feb. 28 — the day four ATF agents were killed and 16 wounded during an attempt to serve search and arrest warrants on Branch Davidian cult leader Vernon Howell, also known as David Koresh.
But this day was different.
The uniformed agents who made their return to the compound area aboard three school buses had come back to make peace with themselves and get on with the process of rebuilding their lives.
None had seen the area since leaving Waco following the bloody raid that led to a 51-day standoff between federal agents and cult members.
At least 60 agents took part in the 2½ hour walk-through tour of the ruins of the compound, which was destroyed by fire April 19. The blaze started after FBI agents punched holes into the building and injected non-lethal tear gas.
Authorities maintain that the fire — which killed 72 people, including 17 children — was set by cult members.
U.S. attorneys investigating the case briefed agents before allowing them time to view the ashes, authorities said.
Media representatives were kept about a quarter-mile from the compound during the tour. All that was visible at the site was the water tower, a couple of flags blowing in the wind and the rear of the school buses.
ATF agents and Department of Public Safety officers monitored the road block at Lake Felton Parkway and Elk Road. Following the visit, agents slipped out through a back exit.
The agents reunited again shortly before 2 p.m. at Highland Baptist Church to take part in a memorial service for agents slain and wounded during the initial raid.
The 45-minute service was attended by about 300 people, including ATF Director Stephen E. Higgins and Dan Hartnett, the agency’s deputy director for law enforcement. It was restricted to law enforcement officials and their families.
All those who entered the church presented some form of identification to the Waco police officers guarding the door. Most of the agents wore their badges—each of which had a strip of black tape across it symbolizing their time of mourning.
The service was meant to allow the 90 agents involved in the raid a time to grieve privately for their colleagues. Ted Royster, a special agent in charge of the Dallas Division of ATF, said they did just that.
“We got together to recall what happened that day. We thought a lot about what happened in there . . . some cried. It was a good process. It’s something that had to be done,” Royster said after leaving the church service.
Royster said Higgins talked about the four agents who were killed in the compound and about the importance of the agents gathering together to remember them.
“He mentioned that we should never forget what happened. It wasn’t an easy situation. It brought some tearful eyes,” said Royster, who was one of the agents who rode in a helicopter the morning of the raid.
“But as I said before, we’ll get stronger from this. We’ll bounce back. It just takes time. This is all a part of the healing process.”
A service program handed out to members of the media read: “In memory of special agents slain. In defense of fellow agents.”
The program also listed the names of the agents killed, their badge numbers and the field division in which they worked.
Waco Police Department spokeswoman Malissa Sims estimated that about 20 agents from the New Orleans division attended. She said the Houston and Dallas divisions each had 100 people attend.
At the end of the service, the DPS honor guard fired a 21-gun salute. Three flags that were carried into the church by Department of Public Safety troopers were given to the ATF field divisions.
The Dallas division received the U.S. flag, the Houston division received the Texas flag, and the New Orleans division — where three of the four agents killed were based — received the ATF flag after the service, Royster said.
Clayton Smith, a Texas Ranger who works in Waco, said he was pleased with the service, as well as the support the community has shown to law enforcement officials.
“The service was very fitting. I thought it was appropriate to show sorrow and respect to the slain and wounded officers,” said Smith, who is assisting in the investigation of the raid. “I count it a privilege and an honor to be working with these people. I’m also pleased at the way the community has handled the whole thing.”
Royster said agents were better able to grieve without the cameras and news reporters.
“People don’t realize that when you’re a law enforcement officer your life is not a series of left and right turns. We’re human,” he said.
“You can’t really express yourself when the cameras are around. Plus, it’s been kind of hard on us lately, so we just wanted to be by ourselves.”
When asked if the agents were prepared to put the tragedy behind them and move on, Royster said: “As far as the job . . . getting back to normal, yeah. There’s still going to be reviews and stuff, but we’ll survive.”