SAN ANTONIO – It’s not an operation he thinks about often, but it is certainly one Jeffrey Allovio will never forget.
Allovio, who retired from the FBI in 2017, was working a kidnapping case in Laredo when he got the call to head to the Mount Carmel compound, just outside of Waco.
That call came after the deadly gunfight between members of the Branch Davidian religious sect living at the compound and ATF agents who tried to execute a search warrant on suspicion of stockpiling weapons.
“I knew we had a very, very dangerous situation because the folks inside the compound were willing to kill law enforcement officers,” Allovio said.
A standoff began Feb. 28, 1993, and came to a fiery end on April 19, 1993.
Allovio was at the compound for all 51 days and took several photos he keeps in an album today.
“There were several times when the Davidians had opened rifle ports where .50-caliber weapons were coming out of different sides, different ports of the compound,” he said. “There was always the concern that they could start firing at any time.”
Allovio was in a sniper position, observing and calling out what he saw happening at Mount Carmel.
“There were different times I would see David Koresh — Vernon Howell — in the windows,” he recalled.
Failed negotiations made each day seem like the day before for Allovio and his team. At times, he said, the operation began to seem routine. Other times, it took a bizarre, surreal turn, he said.
“I recall several times, though, being at the scope at the rear of the compound at night and all of a sudden I'd hear a rooster crowing over the loud speaker or 'Wake Up Little Susie' playing,” Allovio said. “You’re looking at this compound that's glowing at night in the middle of Waco, Texas, and people are playing 'Wake Up Little Susie.' You don't see that every day.”
Day 51 would wipe away any semblance of the routine or the bizarre. It would turn to tragedy.
Allovio recalls the darkness of the 6 a.m. hour that day, yet the compound was bright as lights pointed in its direction.
The FBI told Koresh and his followers that they had one last chance to come out before agents would release tear gas in the compound.
“Their response, as I recall, was throwing a phone that had a wire on it. They called it the 'football.' They threw that football out in protest,” Allovio said. “Then they lit up the tanks with several hundred rounds. I couldn’t hear the firing, but what I could see was the tanks being peppered with what looked like sparklers. Rounds were bouncing off the tanks.”
Agents used tanks to punch holes in the side of the compound and insert the tear gas.
“They were going to introduce the tear gas and hopefully they were going to come out. I think people were expecting them to come out," Allovio said. “The wind was blowing very severely that day, as much as 30 miles per hour. And the holes that had been put into the compound were as big as a garage door on a two-car garage. I think that a lot of the tear gas was blown out of there.”
The Davidians were also armed with gas masks. The agents’ plan did not work.
Hours later, at 12:05 p.m., Allovio saw smoke coming from at least three places in the compound.
“What I’m thinking about is, ‘Oh, they're going to burn this place up. They're going to come out, and they're going to burn the evidence,’” Allovio said. “I think that's what the majority of the folks thought who I was with at that time.”
“And then all of a sudden the big realization that, 'Hey, some of these people, they aren't coming out,'” he said.
The fire would rage at the compound for 20 minutes. Allovio describes a coldness coming over him like he had been hit with a chill.
“You’re seeing people committing suicide. You’re seeing people kill each other,” he said.
Hostage rescue teams saved some people from the fire. Eight people made it out on their own.
“Our first question was, ‘Where are the children? Where are the children?’ Probably the most vivid memory I have was every person I asked that question (to) took their eyes and looked to the ground in shame,” Allovio said. “They had come out by themselves and left the children in there to die.”
Seventy-six people died that day, including 25 children. Investigators would later discover some of the victims had been shot inside the compound.
“What we saw at that compound was very surreal,” Allovio said of the aftermath. “You saw a person up on that tower on the first floor, what was left of his body, behind a .50-caliber rifle.”
Allovio describes the fire like a cremation. He said over a million rounds of ammunition went off during the blaze.
In the months and years that followed, the federal government and agents would be criticized for their tactics during the standoff. For some theorists, the question of who started the fire still looms.
For Allovio, the answer is as clear to him now as it was 25 years ago.
“The accelerants that were found, the folks we talked to who were inside the compound, the fact that I took the photographs when the smoke first came out shows that there were no tanks in the area,” he said. “So the question of who started it was crystal clear. But I think the bigger question is, 'Why didn’t they come out?' You would expect a mother to protect her child, and that wasn’t the reaction.”
“That ultimate decision lies with Vernon Howell, David Koresh," Allovio said.