18 Years Ago, David Koresh Called CNN
Sundays are usually slow in the news business. But there are exceptions.
February 28, 1993, was one of them.
Around 12:45 p.m., CNN national weekend editor Dave Schechter was overseeing the network’s national desk when a young assignment editor stood up with his hand over a phone receiver. “I’ve got someone on the line who says they’re in Waco,” he announced to his boss. “I’m not sure but I think I heard a gunshot.”
A few seconds later, the call dropped.
“All I knew was that someone called from somewhere in Texas about something,” Schechter said. “Keep in mind, this is an age before Google. We can’t just go online, plug in Texas and see what might be going on. And I couldn’t just ring someone’s cell phone. We had none of that.”
Few outside of the Central Texas town had heard of the Branch Davidians, or their leader David Koresh. The Waco newspaper had only days before published a series called “The Sinful Messiah” about Koresh and his odd followers living in a country compound. And on February 28, the Associated Press had not yet moved a word about the gun battle that had erupted that morning between the Davidians and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives which left several dead on both sides. Koresh had been shot in the side.
Schechter called CNN’s Dallas bureau chief Tony Clark. The correspondent knew about the newspaper stories, and gave Schechter a rundown: Koresh was a charismatic leader of a fundamental off-shoot of the Seventh Day Adventist Church who preached that the Bible foretold the end times. Federal agents had been watching the Davidians for some time, suspecting them of stockpiling military-style weapons with the intention of building an “Army for God.”
Clark was dispatched to Waco.
Around 2:30, another call came into CNN. This time Schechter picked up. It was Steve Schneider, David Koresh’s right-hand man.
“He was shouting, ‘There are women and children in here and they’re shooting at us!'” Schechter remembers. “He wanted to talk and tell us everything was going on. Schneider was saying there were people inside (the Davidian compound) and some have weapons. Koresh was wounded.
“So we know the federal agents are massing. We have that sense. And I’m trying to get an idea of how many people are inside,” Schechter explains. “I’m just scribbling notes furiously. There are people standing around me. I’m listening and I’m telling another supervisor to start calling the network’s executives.
“At some point, I told Schneider, ‘You have to explain to me who you are.’
“Boy, did I get an explanation.”
Schneider launches into a diatribe about the Davidian faith, giving the editor an earful about how the Bible’s Book of Revelation and Seven Seals predict the apocalypse.
“I must confess, I didn’t understand him,” said Schechter. “Most of my conversation, on my end, I’m asking, carefully, ‘Can we please get someone on air to talk to us?'”
While the conversation continues, another CNN editor calls the Waco reporter who wrote the “Sinful Messiah” series, according to Bob Furnad, then the network’s executive vice president.
The editor plays a short recording of Schneider’s conversation with CNN over the phone to the reporter.
“We wanted to be absolutely certain that this guy was who he said he was before we continued,” Furnad told CNN.com. “The Waco reporter said, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s Schneider.'”
The hours continue to tick by. Schechter remains in his seat and on the call the whole time.
Around 7 p.m., David Koresh gets on the phone.
“If I thought Steve Schneider’s theology was difficult to understand, this was off the charts. Koresh started giving me sermons – the Seven Seals, all of his beliefs,” Schechter recalls.
He knows Koresh had been shot.
“I would say he was lucid, but I wouldn’t say he was coherent,” the editor remembers. “He was talking very fast and what he was saying was difficult to follow.”
While Schechter tried to keep Koresh in good favor, by then “various network people running up the food chain” were standing behind Schechter.
Koresh agrees to go live on air, and Schechter tells him he must transfer him to the control room so that CNN anchor David French can conduct the interview from CNN studios in Washington.
“Koresh panics – he’s like, ‘What? You’re not the one who’s going to be interviewing to me? You’re giving me to someone else?’ I might have told him it was going to be fine. I don’t remember.”
French, in Washington, with as much information as anyone had, manages to talk to Koresh live. Watch the interview
“Almost immediately, the feds were calling executives, livid beyond the point of being apoplectic,” Schechter recalled. “They were like, ‘How did you do this? You shouldn’t be doing this!’ Something like that, I’m not sure, but we responded by saying, ‘We didn’t call them, they called us.'”
As soon as the interview concludes, the FBI calls CNN executives.
“They were pissed off, saying to us, ‘Why have you been tying up the phone lines when we need them? They [the Davidians] have hostages,'” Furnad recalls.
“Well, we don’t know if they are hostages or they are there of their own free will,” Furnad said. “We told the FBI that we had the phone line for all of eight minutes and you guys are welcome to it now.”
The FBI then asked CNN if it would work with the agency to call the compound, and allow the feds to listen in. Furnad called Tom Johnson, then the president of the network.
Furnad says he and Johnson’s immediate reaction was: No way.
“We were not going to become the story,” Furnad recalls. Listen to the FBI’s negotiations with Koresh
With the call finally off his hands, Schechter takes a breather and a much needed bathroom break. He heads home.
It was just the beginning at the Davidian compound. Over the next 50 days, CNN would cover a nationally harrowing saga which culminated in a conflagration that killed dozens of people, including more than 20 children.
A sad day in American History.