5 Incredible Last-ditch Efforts to Avert Disaster

The Branch Davidian Raid, 1993
Grainy footage from April 1993 shows the Branch Davidian compound exploding into flames.
Grainy footage from April 1993 shows the Branch Davidian compound exploding into flames.
Shelly Katz/Liaison/Getty Images

Few people knew anything was happening until after the fact. The U.S. Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and the FBI hostage-rescue team were positioned outside the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. The ATF believed David Koresh and his followers, labeled a "cult," were in possession of an illegal arsenal of weapons.

The reasons for the 1993 raid and its legitimacy are still a subject of debate. It was a highly charged situation, and during the final days of a nearly two-month standoff, with armed federal agents surrounding the building, dozens of people, including children, barricaded inside, and cult leaders reputedly hinting at mass suicide, the U.S. government made a decision.

The raid began with tear gas on April 19, 1993. The plan was to clear the building by tossing canisters of CS gas inside, causing immediate burning of the eyes, nose and throat. Once people fled the building, federal agents would take them into custody, and the stand-off would be over.

That's not how it turned out. The last-ditch attempt to end the conflict without bloodshed was a massive failure. The gas didn't work -- it may be that high winds caused it to disperse and be ineffective -- and shots were fired. Who shot first is unclear, with federal agents and Davidians alike claiming to have fired only in response.

No matter who started it, it ended in disaster when a fire began in the compound. (Again, it's unclear who was responsible, although most of the evidence points to Koresh's followers igniting the blaze using accelerants in three different places simultaneously [source: PBS].) The building went up in flames with everyone inside. More than 80 people died in the botched operation.

Up next: With oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico …