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Thursday, April 19, 2018

Branch Davidian standoff remembered by Texas TV journalists who were there

How the Houston and Waco TV-radio journalists who covered the Branch Davidian standoff remember the tragedy from 25 years ago

KHOU 11 reporter Norm Uhl and photographer John Shaw

Much has been reported concerning the Branch Davidian compound assault and standoff near Waco.

Especially when it comes to KWTX 10. The Waco-Temple-Killeen CBS affiliate was on scene at the time of the initial raid.

Lots of media coverage has been devoted to that station and its staff that were there, including the fallout. When I worked in Waco as a cub reporter, I remember hearing lots of stories about the raid that had just gone down less than a decade before. Some KWTX staffers were still being featured in David Koresh documentaries.

You can read more about KWTX's story, here and here.

On this 25th anniversary ATF raid, I will be bringing you the stories from Satellite City, the media enclave residing near Mt. Carmel, where the cult lived back then and some still to this day.

The standoff lasted from February 28 to April 19, 1993.

Over the last few months, I have been corresponding with the journalists who were temporarily living there and the ones who called Waco home, all trying to cover and make sense of this sudden international story.

We find out what the locals thought of the media intrusion and just who shot the now famous and chilling footage of the compound on fire.

Minerva Perez - KTRK abc13 Houston
Covering the first seven days of the 1993 WACO SEIGE was both COLD AND FRUSTRATING. I was on the anchor desk that Sunday night with Bob Boudreaux when the ATF raid went down. I was sent and arrived the next day in my own car, after making a pit stop for warm clothes at a Wal-Mart.

It was late winter, February, so a norther blew in overnight over Central Texas and the cold winds went right through my coat and jeans. Talk about having to layer up! I was wearing two pairs of jeans to sleep in heater-less RV the station sent us. Wayne Dolcefino and photographer Tony Chapa were already there having arrived the night before. All media were held back about two hundred yards from the Mount Carmel compound by law enforcement. I remember there were lines of press vans and vehicles up and down a two-lane part dirt, part caliche road, the only one leading to the Mount Carmel compound that sat in an open field. It was the classic "hurry up and wait" story.

Mike Capps - CNN Network Correspondent
I arrived in Waco (driving from Dallas where I lived and was based while at CNN) less than two hours after the raid ended.  The scene was chaotic.   A longtime friend who once ran the Oklahoma Bureau of Investigation, and then moved to the FBI, greeted me as I walked up and told me what was going on and indicated a lot of stories from those who ran the raid for the ATF didn't match up.  He also told me that the ATF/FBI would stage a news conference every day at 10AM, and that as soon as it ended, I should come see him for clarification.  His presence helped me and CNN immensely throughout the 51 day siege.  I was in Waco the whole time save for a day and a half trip I made to Tulsa after a tornado tore the west side of Tulsa to pieces.  

Ann Harder - WACO 100 news anchor (current KXXV 25 Waco - Temple - Killeen anchor)
I was working as a radio news anchor at WACO AM/WACO 100 FM and also as a Central Texas “stringer” for AP Radio News. In that first week after the raid, I lost count of the phone reports I did for broadcast outlets both in the U.S. and abroad. And for me, that was primarily describing just how remote Mt. Carmel was from the city of Waco. I recall being asked by the anchor at KING TV in Seattle, “Are you afraid of being shot?’ I think folks must have believed Waco itself was surrounded by FBI agents, guns drawn. My response was, “I’m more afraid of being run over by a satellite truck on its way out of town to the staging area.”

KHOU 11 reporter Norm Uhl

Norm Uhl - KHOU 11 Houston
I was on site for everything but the first week of Waco. CBS and the CBS affiliated stations had our sat trucks and rented RV’s encamped in the same area and we worked closely together to cover all locations, including a crew on site, one for the daily briefings at the convention center (KHOU’s Jim Moore covered most of those, as I recall), one for any court appearances by adult Branch Davidians who had come out of the compound.

Jay Remboldt - KHOU 11 photographer
I was there starting on the third day. Despite it being a tragic story there were times of, in what we called Satellite City, moments of levity. The brutal cold nights. We finally rented those jet engine shaped shop heaters to keep warm as we sat by our cameras under tents bundled up. They burn white gas. After several nights they would run out of fuel so we started siphoning diesel from the sat trucks. They will burn diesel for a night or two then the plug fouls. We would call the rental company and request ones that work. They would bring fresh ones full of fuel. After the third time we were told no more, if we foul them again that's it, no more heaters. Of course we still burned diesel in them. When they fouled, we grabbed a can of Coke from the Salvation Army truck cleaned the plugs and viola! Good to go for two more nights. Never heard a word after that.

Ann Harder - WACO 100 news anchor (current KXXV 25 Waco - Temple - Killeen anchor)
Due to my responsibilities at home with three small boys, my coverage was pretty well confined to the daily press conferences and what phone interviews I could get with local elected officials, sheriff’s officials and the Waco Tribune Herald editor, Bob Lott.
We did do a call in show on WACO AM the Friday after the initial raid and the comments were really interesting. It was sort of like group therapy for all of us since that first week was so surreal. It was difficult to process being the center of such a huge story, unlike anything anyone had seen around here before. But it showed me how smart and perceptive our listeners were. I recall one caller suggesting loud sounds and music be blasted at the compound (which did happen weeks later). Another recommended punching holes in the building for tear gas (which we know happened the final day).

Norm Uhl - KHOU 11 Houston
The CBS group met every morning to decide assignments. Since all the other stations and networks were covering the same locations it was difficult to get something different, something exclusive, but we managed to do so fairly consistently.

Here’s one example, one day a crew was going to cover a court appearance. A CBS producer would be in the courtroom. I suggested the producer take a bunch of cards and write a note on the back saying, “If you’d like to tell your side of the story call us collect at...” The producer was close enough to the Davidians that she did just that and it wasn’t long before the collect phone calls starting coming in, giving CBS and all the CBS stations some huge exclusives.

Jay Remboldt - KHOU 11 photographer
Many photographers pack their news trucks with essential equipment beyond what the station gave us. I always had my golf clubs. With a lot of down time, I would go to the back of the pasture we rented and hit range balls back toward the sat trucks with the compound in the background. I had been doing this for weeks, then one day I get a call from our News Director Dave Goldberg, "Jay, I'm not paying you to goof off and play golf."

"But I am working, seven days a week, I'm not playing golf", silence on the phone, then laughter.

Dave says, "You were on Dateline last night". The NBC crew snuck way behind me and did a brilliant telephoto shot that made everything look closer than it was.

Vicki Mabrey from CBS was there. She and I celebrated our birthdays sitting in that pasture with horses and the compound looming in the background. We had cake and a small party. Other crew members set it up and totally surprised us.

Norm Uhl - KHOU 11 Houston
As the siege continued, stations began looking for ways to cut back on overtime. When the stations pulled out for the weekend, I argued with KHOU to stay. There were two moonless nights coming up. I argued that if they are going in, that’s when it’ll happen. I was playing an educated hunch. KHOU agreed to let me and photographer Jay Remboldt stay and when the tanks moved up to inject gas into the building in the early morning hours of the second moonless light, I was the only journalist reporting live.

Within half an hour, I had an AP reporter sitting in front of me relaying my reports and for a while, that was the only source available to Houston stations.

That morning the news director at a competing Houston station changed my middle name. He said to his staff to find another way to attribute the information because there’s no way we are quoting Norm “EFFIN” Uhl. I heard about it later and had a good laugh with that news director years later.

Minerva Perez - KTRK abc13 Houston
And we waited and waited for days, it was horribly frustrating. We waited everyday for something to happen…I got to do some color or Sidebar stories of the incident that killed four ATF agents and several Davidians and scores of others when it was all over April 19th. Work conditions were so brutal, I remember asking myself, “what the hell am I doing here?”

Ann Harder - WACO 100 news anchor (current KXXV 25 Waco - Temple - Killeen anchor)
The final day of the fire was a horrible thing to witness as a reporter. I was on the air, watching the event unfold on our TV monitor. Just describing what I was looking at for our listeners—knowing how many women and children were inside was heart-breaking.

Mike Capps - CNN Network Correspondent
We at CNN really performed well that day.  I was fortunate enough to be a part of a small team of CNN correspondents and anchors who broadcast the last 9 hours of the siege world wide.  I was the only live presence on site in Waco.  We were nominated for a national Emmy for this broadcast and we won a Cable Ace Award.  CNN people told us all later that the estimated world-wide audience for our broadcast was somewhere between 400-500 million people, and while that's huge, I thought the fact we were able to pull off that many hours with no glitches was monumental.  CNN had some great days before that with its Gulf War coverage and certainly have had great days since, but I think it took a monumental effort from Atlanta and us to pull it off and it was by far my proudest day in the 5 years I was at CNN.

Norm Uhl - KHOU 11 Houston
CBS and the other networks had left to cover the verdict in the trial of the Rodney King police officers in Simi Valley, Ca. They returned later that morning. I had been up two straight nights playing my hunch. Once it started I reported live pretty much non-stop until the building went up in flames behind me about midday. After the Noon show, a replacement showed up so I could get some rest. At that moment, CBS grabbed me to do lives for their affiliates all over the country and around the world. My parents saw me in my hometown of Lexington, Kentucky and my then mother-in-law in England saw me on Sky News.

I would later find out I had another viewer in New York. Dan Rather was switching around the satellites trying to get more information. That night after he anchored the CBS Evening News from WACO, he took the CBS folks out to dinner in Waco. As I left he told me that he stopped switching around the satellite channels when he came across my reporting and said, “Damn fine reporting, young man.” I should have gotten that in writing or on tape.

While reporting on the fire behind me, I obviously had no official information so I relied on my years of experience covering fires and the lessons I learned from some very smart fire marshals who determine the causes of fires. One thing that stuck with me is that fires don’t start in more than one location at the same time in a building unless the fires are set. That led me to speculate that some of the Davidians might well be bringing their own prophecy to reality by setting the fires.

During the siege, the FBI had hidden a listening device in a delivery of milk. Recordings from the day of the fire, released later, seemed to bear out my speculation.

Ray Peters - KXXV 25 Waco - Temple - Killeen
My contribution is this, and is literally all I have from the 51 day event: I was a sportscaster at the time, which (understandably) meant my time was cut each and every show. I probably worked less from February 28th to April 19th, 1993 than any time in my professional career. Later as the main news anchor at the ABC affiliate in Waco, I certainly covered the many trials, investigations and anniversaries.

Steve Snyder - KCEN 6 Waco - Temple - Killeen (later KXXV)
I was also a sportscaster during that time, but at the NBC affiliate, KCEN. My involvement was during the standoff was non-existent as well... until the last day. The news director called that morning and said the standoff was coming to an end, and news was doing wall-to-wall coverage. Since I wouldn't be doing sports that night, she asked if I would mind bringing out the sports camera gear and shooting some video. I obliged. I arrived at the compound, and since it was close to noon, I agreed to set up my gear and shoot our reporter's noon news live shot. Literally seconds after putting the camera on the tripod, I noticed smoke coming up in the distance. I zoomed in and ended up shooting one version of video that has been played countless times since then. Most people were at the compound for 51 days. I was there for about 15 minutes.

Norm Uhl - KHOU 11 Houston
The day of the fire I kept hoping that the people had escaped out of the other side of the building where we could not see, but when it became apparent to me they were setting the fires themselves on the inside, my hopes dimmed and I just had to put that out of my mind, keep my composure, and do my job. It was difficult to say the least. I still avoid thinking about that part of it and other memories tend to come to the surface first. As a recall, a couple of them did escape which we caught on camera. CBS rented a piece of land from a local and erected a scaffolding with a remotely controlled camera. They told us they brought in an experimental long lens from Japan to give us the closest view of all the networks. The camera had to be remotely controlled because the shot was zoomed in so much that anyone standing on the platform would have caused the picture to shake constantly.

Steve Snyder - KCEN 6 Waco - Temple - Killeen (later KXXV)
After shooting all of the fire video, and after all the action had subsided, our reporter was still ad-libbing live on the air, filling time until the top of the hour when we could get out and back to regular programming. I was standing just to his left off camera, when he started talking about an awful smell. He said he "didn't want to speculate what it was" but he feared the worst... ie burning flesh. I turned and noticed somebody had just emptied a nearby port-a-potty. I then pointed this fact out to the reporter. Dozens of people had just lost their lives, and now me and him are trying not to crack up over this ill timed s#it show.

Minerva Perez - KTRK abc13 Houston
At the end of my time there, I was so emotionally and physically exhausted that I collapsed into the arms of my husband and baby when I got home. I felt sorry for Wayne, who stayed the entire 51 days of the siege! It was awful thinking of all the children who perished in that fire. (Read more about Perez's experience in 'I GOTTA STORY: My 30 Years in TV News')

Mike Capps - CNN Network Correspondent
One side note from this.  I had never seen the compound up close.  So, once our broadcast ended, I walked up the asphalt road toward the compound and was greeted by Dan Rather and his producer Wayne Nelson, and Peter Jennings and his producer.  All four offered congratulations and pats on the back. Rather had been a hero of mine for years and in fact I had interviewed for a producer's job at CBS just before signing on with CNN, and of course Jennings was huge in my ABC career.  Now, this probably should have been the pinnacle of anyone's news career.  But at that point I was burned out beyond belief and really couldn't process what they were saying and the compliments they passed along.  I do remember thinking, as I walked back to the CNN live truck and van, "damnit, I missed another opening day of baseball season!"   How crazy is that?   Couple years later I'm working in ball, and still am.

Steve Snyder - KCEN 6 Waco - Temple - Killeen (later KXXV)
You may remember the second in command at the compound was named Steve Schneider. Pronounced similarly, but once it was spelled on the TV numerous times, that should have cleared the confusion. But no! Some "enterprising producer from ABC News called me at home on day 2 or 3 of the standoff. He asked if I was the "Branch Davidian Steve Schneider" that had been on the air. I asked if he was serious. He sheepishly realize the foolishness of his question and apologized. The Waco Tribune-Herald ended up doing a funny story about that a few days later.

Jay Remboldt - KHOU 11 photographer
To this day when Waco comes up in conversation and still does, "You were there?" "Yep, it is the only time I have heard a collective OH SHIT from all the supposed jaded media." Hope it never happens again.

Mike Capps - CNN Network Correspondent
Through the whole process, and hearing differing tales of what was and had transpired, I came to some conclusions over the years:

1). The sheriff of McLennan County, when approached by the ATF concerning David Koresh, had told ATF officials that he could bring David Koresh in with no trouble, no bloodshed, and without any fuss at all. ATF leadership flatly refused.  Backing up a bit, I think it's important to recognize that when this event took place, the Clinton administration had only been in office a couple months and had promised to do away with federal police agencies whose jobs overlapped with other federal police agencies.  We know that the ATF and U.S. Customs among others performed some of the same, apparently there was a lot of fear among folks at the ATF that their organization would somehow be eliminated.  

2). So, in my opinion, after thinking about this 27 years down the road, I think ATF brass wanted to prove itself worthy of existence, and despite the Sheriff's please for ATF not to run a raid, they did so anyway and the result was several ATF folks killed...and away we went.  This entire episode did NOT have to occur, had cooler, clearer heads prevailed.

3). I am to this day mystified why the federal government thought it necessary to burn down the Branch Davidian compound instead of maintaining the vigil that eventually would've, in my opinion, worn Koresh down.  Instead, as we all know he was killed, and so many questions remain unanswered.

* Updated in 2020 with recollections told to me by former CNN Network correspondent Mike Capps.

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