Waco, a Paramount Network original miniseries that recently landed on Netflix, tells the story of the bloody showdown that took place in Waco, TX between the FBI and a cult known as the Branch Davidians in 1993. The violent face-off lasted for almost two whole months, and its climactic ending resulted in the loss of federal agents and members of the group alike. The tragedy took place nearly 30 years ago, but the nine survivors still remember the horror of the 51 day-siege.
Mental health practitioners were concerned for the wellbeing of the nine people who barely managed to walk away from the deadly fire that erupted on Mount Carmel that day, predicting that the survivors would face a lifetime of trauma and possibly never recover from what they experienced.
David Thibodeau is one of those survivors. Portrayed by Rory Culkin in the miniseries, Thibodeau worked closely with Paramount Network throughout the filming of the project to ensure that the details of the standoff were told accurately and that the terror of the event came across on screen. For Thibodeau, it was essential that the story capture as many perspectives as possible — even that of the Branch Davidian’s leader, David Koresh — to express the devastation of the siege from each side.
Watching the tale unfold once in production and then again after the miniseries premiered in 2018 was a surreal experience for Thibodeau. “I tell you, it's funny," he told the Dallas Observer shortly after Waco was released. "There were times where years and years would go by, not talking about it. It'll be on the TV, and I'd see Mount Carmel burning, and I'm like, Oh, my God, that really happened. I was there. Wow."
“Sometimes, it feels like a dream, only knowing it's not,” Thibodeau continued. “It did really happen. I don't mind talking about it.”
After Waco's premiere, Thibodeau headed up to Maine, where he started a new life following his narrow escape from the Branch Davidian compound. He still carries the weight of the siege with him. His relationship with music, which was what connected him to Koresh, was heavily impacted by the tragedy; it's now a means of therapy instead of a hobby.
"I had a lot of rage inside me. A lot of unchecked anger,” Thibodeau explained to The Bangor Daily News in 2018. “Now I just hit the hell out of drums instead of raising my voice. That helps a lot.”
Also coping with the lingering trauma from the siege is fellow survivor Joann Vaega. Vaega was just a child when her parents moved their family to the compound, but it didn't take long for her to realize that something was not right about her new surroundings. When the FBI raided the ranch in 1993, Vaega's mom and dad allowed their six-year-old to be among the 21 children released into the care of the Methodist Children’s Home in Waco. She was sent back to her hometown of Kailua, Hawaii a month into the siege.
"My mom was really adamant about doing everything to get me out,” Vaega recalled of her hurried escape. “As quickly as she could, she packed what little I had and I said goodbye to my parents. I absolutely believe that my mom was the driving force in saving me.”
"As I grew up, the demons I faced were different from other kids,” she revealed. "I had therapists telling me I was going to be a mass murderer, and to keep a close eye on me because of what had happened to me — just really hurtful things.”
Readjusting to life outside of the cult was certainly not without its difficulties — Vaega admitted that it felt like she was "starting completely over" — but adjust she did. Today, Vaega is thriving. She's married with two children, and she's also working as a training and development director at a restaurant.
"I can’t imagine my life any different," said Vaega. "I wouldn’t want to. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
Waco is now streaming on Netflix.