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25 Years After The Tanks, Tear Gas And Flames, 'Waco' Returns To TV

Twenty-five years ago, all eyes were on Waco, Texas — where the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was attempting to raid a compound owned by a fringe Christian group called the Branch Davidians, just outside of the city. ATF agents suspected the group was illegally stockpiling weapons.

Four agents and six Branch Davidians died in the initial raid, and for the next 51 days, we watched a siege play out on TV. But eventually, it all ended with tanks, tear gas, and flames.

The story is back on our television screens now, this time as a six-part miniseries called Waco. It's largely based on the accounts of two men who were there: Gary Noesner, a retired FBI chief hostage negotiator, and David Thibodeau, one of the few people who survived the siege.

Branch Davidian leader David Koresh had a surprising sideline as a rock musician, and Thibodeau says that's what drew him into the group.

Interview Highlights

Branch Davidian members Jaime Castillo (L) and David Thibodeau (C) are led from the federal court building after their 1993 arraignment in Waco, TX. The men were two of nine members to survive the blaze that destroyed the Branch Davidian compound.
TIM ROBERTS / AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
Branch Davidian members Jaime Castillo (L) and David Thibodeau (C) are led from the federal court building after their 1993 arraignment in Waco, TX. The men were two of nine members to survive the blaze that destroyed the Branch Davidian compound.

On how Thibodeau got involved with The Branch Davidians

Thibodeau: Over the course of six months, I got to know the guys, you know, we'd jam a little bit and then sometimes they would come over and give studies. They made it very clear that a big part of their music is about scripture. One of the things that impressed me most was one of the first times I had to study with Steve Schneider, he opened the Scripture. He had one of those quarter inch margin bibles, and every single page was color-coded. The notes were just studious, it was like like an intellectual thing more than just proselytizing to someone, and that really interested me. That's kind of — I always listen to the TV preachers on television and you just see right through them. David wasn't that easy to see through.

On negotiating with Koresh during the siege

Noesner: We got 35 people out through the negotiation process, including 21 children. I feel confident that [if] we had done things a bit differently, we could have secured the safe release of a good many more, perhaps everyone.

What I like about this TV series so much is they do look at this very complex incident from two perspectives — from inside looking out [and] outside looking in. We always knew that everyone in there was legitimately enthralled and believed in David Koresh's message, and that's why we're there. And it's also one of the reasons that complicated our resolution efforts because David's religious philosophy was that the end times are coming and the forces of evil will come against us. And in essence, the ATF raid validated that prophecy.

Thibodeau: But even more so than that ... I believe the negotiators were really trying, there's no doubt about that, is the fact that the tactical commanders would come in and override things that the negotiators would say to us. I won't even say promise, but during the course of conversation, certain things would be said and certain alliances or rapport built. And then the commanders would come in and just destroy all that work that they had done, and made us so much more mistrustful and so much more into, "There's no way out of this. The world is fighting against the last message." And it just — it made it so much truer.

On meeting each other for the first time on the set of Waco

Noesner: A bit of a funny story is when we were on set, [had] been there a few days, and we were having lunch, and we ended up being at a table together by ourselves, and David's back was to everyone, so I don't think he saw them, but through my peripheral vision, I'm seeing literally everybody in the crew is transfixed to say, "Are these guys gonna break out in a fist fight or yell at each other?" And we got along fine. There's clearly some areas where we have different perceptions about events.

Thibodeau: This is the kind of dialogue that needs to happen more often with American citizens. Everyone should be talking to each other to find out why they have the views that they do instead of just getting on Facebook and yelling at each other. Nobody really, really talks. They don't listen.

On what they wish people understood about Waco

Thibodeau: I mean, I really just want the people to be humanized in a way. They've honestly just been demonized through the press. There are real children, real mothers, real dynamics going on. It is very complex when there's that many people, and that many people that are focused in the same direction. Honestly it's about them and I want them to be, you know, honored. You know, no matter what you think of David Koresh or the people that died there, they died for what they believed in. And that's more than I can say for a lot of people.

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Kelly McEvers is a two-time Peabody Award-winning journalist and former host of NPR's flagship newsmagazine, All Things Considered. She spent much of her career as an international correspondent, reporting from Asia, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. She is the creator and host of the acclaimed Embedded podcast, a documentary show that goes to hard places to make sense of the news. She began her career as a newspaper reporter in Chicago.

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