SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Twenty years ago, our attention was focused just 20 miles down the road from the town of West. In 1993, federal agents clashed with David Koresh's Branch Davidian community, near Waco. On April 19th, the order was given for military tanks to fire tear gas into the dwellings of the apocalyptic group, to try to force them out.
A fire broke out; and some 80 children, women and men perished. It is remembered as one of the darkest chapters in U.S. law enforcement. Two decades later, some of the Branch Davidians who survived the raid are still believers, while a new church group has moved onto that land. NPR's John Burnett has our report.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: So I've come to the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, to see what young people know - if anything - about David Koresh and the Branch Davidians.
BIANCA MORAGNE: I feel like I've heard of David Koresh, but I don't want to say that I know.
MARY HAM: Oh, he was the one that had everyone drink - is it Kool-Aid? Everyone died.
CHAD WERNER: I feel like I've - that sounds familiar, I just don't know. Is that the Waco - wasn't there like, a standoff for awhile? I remember that.
NICHOLAS GEROW: He was supposedly a cult leader, and the Branch Davidians were a religious cult in Waco, Texas, 20 years ago.
SIMON: The students are Bianca Moragne(ph), Mary Ham(ph), Chad Werner(ph) and Nicholas Gerow(ph). Most people born in an earlier generation know the outlines of the story: David Koresh was the self-appointed prophet of a small, religious community.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)
DAVID KORESH: And when the word is made flesh according to Psalms 139, and all this truth about me is put in a book - you know, I may not have a good education; I may only be a ninth-grade student. But the thing is this: The test is, show me those seven seals or shut up.
BURNETT: Koresh was suspected of polygamy, having sex with underage girls, and stockpiling illegal weapons. On Feb. 28, 1993, a strike force from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms raided his compound at Mount Carmel. Four agents and five Davidians died in the gun battle. This was the 911 call.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)
LT. LYNCH: Yeah, this is Lt. Lynch(ph), may I help you?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah. There are 75 men around our building, and they're shooting at us - at Mount Carmel.
LYNCH: Mount Carmel?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah, tell them there are children and women in here, and to call it off!
LYNCH: All right, all right...
BURNETT: The FBI took charge of the standoff. For 51 days, agents tightened the noose around the Davidians - using loud music, bright lights, bulldozers and flash-bang grenades - culminating with the gas raid. On April 19, tanks punched holes in the flimsy building and began inserting CS gas. The fire that erupted, quickly incinerated their church.
I was one of the reporters who stood at the police roadblock watching, horrified, as it burned; knowing that everyone was still inside. A blustery spring wind fanned the flames, and the structure was reduced to charcoal in less than an hour.
Most of the post-incident reports blame the Davidians for starting the fire, and for shooting each other in consensual suicides. But some critics maintain to this day that the FBI raid inadvertently caused the fire. Either way, the agency's actions are indefensible, says Catherine Wessinger. She's a religious historian at Loyola University in New Orleans, an authority on apocalyptic groups, and an expert on the Davidian episode.
CATHERINE WESSINGER: If the FBI believed that they were dealing with members of a cult who were not in their right minds, then why would the FBI put so much pressure on them and then ultimately, carry out an assault which just confirmed David Koresh's prophesies?
BURNETT: And what of the Branch Davidians who survived the fire? Clive Doyle, a 72-year-old Australian-Texan, still lives in Waco, and still has Bible study every Saturday with another survivor, Sheila Martin. Doyle has become the Davidians' unofficial historian and spokesman.
Are you waiting for the resurrection of David Koresh?
CLIVE DOYLE: We, as survivors of 1993, are looking for David and all those that died either in the shootout, or in the fire. We believe that God will resurrect this special group.
BURNETT: Today, all nine Davidian survivors, who were convicted for various offenses related to the initial ATF raid, have been released from federal prison. Paul Fatta spent nearly 13 years in prison on weapons charges; he was released two years early for good behavior. At 55, he lives in San Diego, where he manages his family's Hawaiian restaurant. Fatta, too, still believes.
PAUL FATTA: I would like to see some divine intervention; for God to vindicate his people; all those that have suffered over the years for truth, who've been misunderstood, have been mocked, ridiculed, thrown in prison.
BURNETT: I'm standing out here on the windy rise east of Waco, where it all happened. Believe it or not, there is a new Branch Davidian community that's risen from the ashes; they call themselves Branch, The Lord Our Righteousness. Twelve people live out here now, in a scattering of mobile homes. There's a new church, a dignified memorial to the dead - and a new leader. He is Charles Pace, a portly herbalist who lost a foot in a tractor accident.
CHARLES PACE: I came back here after the slaughter, and I feel that the Lord has anointed me and appointed me to be the leader.
BURNETT: So you're the new prophet of the Branch Davidians?
PACE: I don't claim to be a prophet. I'm a teacher of righteousness; that's the only thing I claim.
BURNETT: Like their predecessors under David Koresh, the new community of Davidians is, according to their leader, waiting for the end times.
PACE: The United States has to fall in order for the one world order to be set up. Especially if there's war in the Middle East, that's when you're going to see Branch Davidians start scrambling to find out what the truth is - or where they need to be.
BURNETT: For the dozens of curious visitors who show up here every month, Pace says he teaches the truth of what happened at Mount Carmel. But as with everything else about the Branch Davidian saga, whose truth is that?
John Burnett, NPR News, near Waco.