In 1993, a violent siege put Waco on the international map and on the tip of everyone’s tongue as the cult capital of the world.
A compound belonging to the group Branch Davidians (a sect that separated in 1955 from the Seventh-day Adventist Church) was visited by the Texas Police as members were suspected of weapons violations. A search and arrest warrant was obtained and authorities attempted to raid the ranch. An intense gun battle erupted, resulting in the deaths of four government agents and six Branch Davidians.
Upon the failure to raid the compound, a standoff with the FBI lasted 51 days. Eventually, the FBI launched a tear gas attack in an attempt to force the Branch Davidians out of the ranch. During the attack, a fire engulfed Mount Carmel. In total, 76 people died including the leader, David Koresh. Much controversy remains as to the actual events of the siege and the fire and although an investigation in 2000 declared that sect member had started the fire themselves, many accounts point to evidence that it was caused by the FBI.
Continuing my interest for ‘Dark Tourism’, the Waco site has been somewhere I’ve always wanted to see. I remembered the live news broadcasts each night from Waco and being shocked at how heavy handed both sides were. I knew that the place had burnt to the ground and not much was left but many visitors wrote about it being an eerily creepy place with a stagnant swimming pool being all that remains at the site.
I’d come very close to Waco while filming for BBC Religion a few years back, but unfortunately the schedule didn’t allow time for a trip. This time I was determined…
MOUNT CARMEL, WACO, TX
I set an alarm and had a basic breakfast at the hotel, to be honest I was still feeling quite full from the 4 meals on the flight!
The drive to Mount Carmel was about 20 minutes and the Sunday roads were dead. I felt nervous as I turned onto Double EE Ranch Road and imagined the hundreds of news crews and satellite trucks vying for the optimum position 24 years earlier.
I’d read that although access wasn’t welcomed, it was tolerated between 09h00 and sunset if the gates were open. I drove past several ranches, then the fields opened out and on the right hand side was a new wall and ornate metal fence. This had to be it. Sure enough, when I got to the gates (which were fortunately open) it was obvious it was the Branch Davidian massacre site. Signs warned of ‘No Trespassing’, ‘Keep Out’ and ‘Beware Of The Dog’.
I drove in slowly, pass the memorial and followed the dirt track into the ranch. There was no-one around and it was eerily silent, just the sound of birds. After a couple of hundred metres I reached a building which a sign explained was the new church on the exact site of the old compound. Next to it was a stagnant 16ft deep swimming pool, the only thing that survived the fire. I got out to explore.
The church had propaganda leaflets explaining why the US Government instructed Delta Force to storm and kill all the cult’s followers. I put one in my pocket and wandered round to the imposing pool. I was absorbed in taking photos and hadn’t noticed a large white dog, angrily barking and running towards me. It was uncomfortably close and I ran towards the car fumbling for my keys to open the door. It was a close call; I jumped in and slammed the door just as the guard dog was about 6ft away from me.
I had most of the photos I wanted and went back to the safety of the memorial. The dog didn’t follow and sat barking in front of the church. It was interesting to notice how many of the 76 people that perished in the fire were from England, I’d say a good 20% of the followers were.
Whilst it’s good that this hasn’t been turned into a macabre tourist attraction, I would have liked to learn a little more on the events of those fateful 2 months. I left, wondering and with more questions than when I’d arrived.
DR PEPPER, WACO, TX
The next landmark I planned was a short 20 minute drive back to Downtown Waco. Although most people think of the dreadful events of 1993 when they hear ‘Waco’, it’s actually famous for being the town that invented Dr Pepper and was the home of the first bottling plant.
Charles Anderton perfected the drink around 1885, a year before Coca Cola. It’s a secret blend of 27 flavours and was originally called a ‘Waco’ before being launched internationally in 1904 as Dr Pepper.
The site no longer bottles or manufactures, but it is administrative offices and a museum. I didn’t have time to go round but took some quick photos outside.
FORT STOCKTON, TX
My final location of the day was 6 hours West to Fort Stockton. The drive took me high through the mountains and into clouds, for miles and miles there was nothing but oil field with drilling rigs small and large everywhere. The air stank of oil.
In Fort Stockton, there was a giant Roadrunner statue, the mascot of the city. It stands at the main junction, over 22ft high. Don’t ask; I’ve absolutely no idea!