Chris Whitcomb can vividly recall the moment he had a clear shot of doomsday cult leader David Koresh.
It was 1993 and Whitcomb was a sniper with the FBI Hostage Rescue Team. A gun battle had been unleashed when members of the Branch Davidians clashed with agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) at the Mount Carmel Center compound outside Waco, Texas. It was a 51-day siege that ended in a deadly blaze.
But before the inferno erupted at the property, Whitcomb said there was one moment when he could have taken Koresh down. Whitcomb described it as “having the perfect conditions” to shoot Koresh and save those who were inside – including children.
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“It’s the moral dilemma – no question about it,” Whitcomb told Fox News Digital. “When you’re in the business of trying to save people in potentially life-threatening situations, you have a very tightly circumscribed set of rules. There are things you can do and things you can’t do. The odd thing about it is that a person who has no training, no involvement whatsoever … is the one making the decision. And I was keenly aware of the people inside that compound.”
“I really did have a long mental process about the morality of shooting David Koresh and the personal consequences of that,” he said. “It was a very private, intimate moment. It was two people, 3 o’clock in the morning. I had to make a decision: Do I shoot one person to save 80? It was a very difficult conversation with myself.”
“It was not difficult in terms of doing it because I was an FBI agent,” Whitcomb continued. “I was not going to shoot David Koresh in the head. But I had to run through the moral imperatives involved in shooting him or not shooting him with the very real possibility that 80 people were going to die as a result. It was a moment I won’t forget in my life.”
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It’s been nearly 30 years since one of the deadliest law enforcement altercations in American history took place. To coincide with the anniversary of the national tragedy, Netflix has released a new docuseries by acclaimed filmmaker Tiller Russell titled “Waco: American Apocalypse.” It features unearthed videotapes filmed inside the FBI Crisis Negotiation Unit, FBI recordings, as well as raw news footage never released to the public.
Several people spoke out in the film, including one of Koresh’s spiritual wives, the last child released from the compound alive, members of the ATF tactical team who watched their colleagues die in the shootout, as well as others who worked closely on the case.
Whitcomb admitted he still struggles to cope with the aftermath of the horrific events that took place – and the many lives that were lost.
“I had been there, intimately engaged with the Branch Davidians for 51 days and nights,” he said. “I knew their faces. I knew the children. I watched them eat breakfast. I knew pretty much everything that was going on. And we had a very specific plan of how it was going to end that last day. I felt they were going to come out [of the compound]. I thought it might be violent because they had been shooting at us with thousands of rounds. It was already an extremely violent morning leading up to the fire itself. But I don’t know anyone who would claim that we believed a fire was going to break out. It just didn’t occur we were going to see a mass suicide. I did not expect a fire. I was shocked when it started.”
On April 19, 1993, the FBI knocked holes in the compound and injected tear gas. The property suddenly caught fire. More than 70 people, including about two dozen teens and children, perished. A 2000 report by a former senior official appointed by the attorney general noted that the exact number couldn’t be stated because of the “extensive burning” and “commingling of the bodies.” At least 20 people, including Koresh, died of gunshot wounds.
For years, there have been arguments over whether authorities or the Branch Davidians started the blaze. While the FBI maintains that the followers ignited the fires, some survivors blamed federal agents. Investigators concluded that the Davidians shot themselves or each other as the fire broke out.
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Whitcomb said he wasn’t prepared for the carnage that he witnessed. He described seeing “skulls everywhere” as Bible pages burned. Flames, fanned by stiff winds, raced through the building in 30 minutes. Only nine followers were known to have survived.
“The motto of the team is to save lives,” he said. “Our entire goal in everything we did, training and application, was to save people’s lives. We were put in a position where we were trying to save the children and the people who wanted to come out, the people that we as a federal government considered to be hostages. When that failed, it had a significant impact on me. … It took a while to process. It was a large part of my life for quite a while. It was a difficult time for me.”
Russell told Fox News Digital that it was “an intensely emotional” experience to meet with survivors for the film.
“I think [the siege] had a very defining impact on almost everyone that I had a chance to spend time with and get to know,” he said. “Some people are trapped in the trauma and what happened at the time. Some people have been able to move forward more easily into the rest of their lives. But for everyone there, it was an American tragedy that happened in real time on national television with the world watching.”
“It’s easy to sit outside and pass judgment on other people,” he said. “Everybody’s screaming and nobody’s listening. When you sit down with these people, treat them like human beings and ask, ‘What is the path that led you here?’ it’s just … very difficult for me to imagine myself being there. But then when you listen to what led these people to someone like David Koresh and this religious sect, you learn that these people were hungry for God in their lives. They were hungry for meaning. They were hungry for a leader. These are shockingly relatable things that we can identify with once we put down the lens of judgment. That’s what I found in every single case. And it gave me a surprising amount of empathy for every single person involved.”
“What I felt after spending time with them is everybody was trying their very best in this impossible situation,” he added.
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Whitcomb still wonders if the events that unfolded could have been prevented.
“I have been back four times over the years,” he said. “I’ve talked to survivors. I’ve looked at it introspectively and firmly believe – and I’ve been told this by people who survived the fire – that David Koresh needed to fulfill the destiny that he perceived was his. And it was some sort of battle with the federal government. It was a conflagration. It was some kind of death by fire so that he could have a resurrection. … It was predestined by the only person who could have changed things, and that’s David Koresh himself. I don’t think it would’ve ended any other way if we’d waited another two months or if we’d waited longer than that.”
Whitcomb said there are still many lessons that can be learned from the siege today. He described how frustrating it’s been to learn of the “abysmal, terrible representations” or previous documentaries that have attempted to explore what happened.
“I’m grateful for what Tiller has done,” he said. “People can make up their minds based on the primary sources, based on people who were there, who saw it, who lived it, experienced it and dealt with it for all these years. In my opinion, it clears up 30 years of mistaken information of what is now a widely discussed event.”
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“It’s easy to pass judgment and say, ‘These are gullible people who fell for a sophisticated manipulative liar’ or ‘The federal government screwed up by going in with this over-charge raid and then being outmanned and outgunned’ or ‘The FBI negotiated this too long’ – all sorts of fingers can be pointed,” said Russell. “You can argue what could have been done differently until you’re blue in the face, but how do we deal with this as a culture?”
“These issues – the role of guns, the role of the federal government, distrust of the federal government, God in people’s lives – all of these things are ringing in our ears as a society,” Russell continued. “Many of those things have their seeds in Waco. I think it’s imperative to look back so that we’re able to make smarter and better decisions in the future.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.