How the Horror in Waco Unfolded in 1993 — Killing Dozens — and the Rise of a New Group Leader Years Later

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April 19, 2024, marks the 31st anniversary of one of the deadliest law enforcement altercations in American history, when members of the Branch Davidians, a religious group under the leadership of self-proclaimed prophet David Koresh, clashed with agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives at the cult’s Mount Carmel Center compound outside Waco, Texas.

A gun battle on Feb. 28, 1993, led to a 51-day deadly siege that ended when an inferno erupted at the 77-acre property on April 19. In total, four federal agents were killed along with more than 80 Branch Davidians, including 25 children and Koresh.

Here’s a look back at how the horror unfolded.

Koresh, a Houston native whose real name was Vernon Howell, came to Mount Carmel in the early ’80s with an enduring fascination with the Bible that traced back to his boyhood.

By 1987, the dyslexic high school drop-out had taken over the Davidians. Koresh took power in the group following a struggle with the previous leader’s son.

“He made the scriptures harmonize,” Clive Doyle, a Branch Davidian, told PEOPLE of Koresh. “He made them come alive. I believe the spirit of God spoke through him.”

David Thibodeau — who was at Mount Carmel during the siege and wrote A Place Called Waco: A Survivor’s Story — added, “He was rational. He would listen to you, tell you how he saw things and was a fascinating individual.”

Koresh claimed he could talk to God and unlock the Seven Seals in the Bible‘s Book of Revelation. He prophesized about Jesus Christ’s second coming and that one day he and his followers would be attacked by the U.S. government.

“He had preached that forces of evil were coming to get them and they would all be killed in a fiery ending and come back as the chosen, and our actions sort of validated his prophecy among his followers,” former FBI negotiator Byron Sage told PEOPLE.

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