Survivor stories: Waco survivor Joann Vaega reflects on life at the compound

Joann Vaega was 6 years old during the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco that claimed the lives of her parents, but refuses to let the tragedy define her.
by Scott Stump / / Source: TODAY

Get the latest from TODAY

Sign up for our newsletter

This story is part of TODAY's series "Survivors: What Happens After the Headlines Fade." For more stories and videos from the series, click here.

Joann Vaega can still remember the grim predictions that a succession of therapists made about her future after she was evacuated from the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, as a child.

She was 6 years old at the time, one of 21 children who were released in 1993 during a 51-day standoff with federal agents, which ended with 76 people dead, including David Koresh, the leader of the religious group.

“As I grew up, the demons I faced were different from other kids,” Vaega told TODAY. “I had people saying you can go through something crazy like that and become the Unabomber, which is what they told my family. 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.”

Vaega was sent by the Texas Department of Human Services to live with her half sister, Ursula Gehrmann, in Kailua, Hawaii, a month before the siege ended in tragedy.

Both of Vaega’s parents, Margarida and Neil Vaega, died in the fire that engulfed the Mount Carmel Center on the ranch on April 19, 1993, after an assault and tear gas attack by the FBI.

Raised by Gehrmann, who is 18 years older, Vaega, 32, has defied those dire predictions about her future. She has become a training and development director at a restaurant, a wife, and a mother of two who has carved out a life for herself in San Jose, California.

“I can honestly say that if I didn’t go through these kinds of experiences, I wouldn’t be half of the mom I am today, I wouldn’t be half the wife I am today, I wouldn’t be half the individual I am today,” she said.

“I can’t imagine my life any different. I wouldn’t want to. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

Life with the Branch Davidians

Vaega’s parents moved with her from Hawaii to the compound in Waco in 1987 in search of a place to belong.

“I don’t fault my parents for making that decision because in the moment, if that’s what was needed, OK,” she said. “I just wish my parents were in a more secure place to have made a better decision. I can’t change that.”

She can remember bits and pieces of life with the Branch Davidians, like not being able to eat meat or being immediately spanked for even the smallest infraction.

“As I got older, it started getting a little darker,” she said. “It was a lot more fear. ... You just did not know what (Koresh) had up his sleeve at any time of the day.”

Waco survivor Joann Vaega
Vaega and her parents moved from Hawaii to the compound in Waco in 1987.Courtesy Joann Vaega

Other children who survived have since said they were taught to believe that Koresh was God and taught how to handle firearms at a young age. They also were exposed to inappropriate sexual content and behavior.

The only clear memory Vaega has of the standoff with federal agents is from the first day. Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms came to execute arrest warrants for Koresh and other members on suspicion of stockpiling illegal weapons.

“I just saw a whole bunch of black dots coming toward us,” she said about the helicopters. “After that it was just a hail of gunfire. ... At some point I was walking around I saw a lot of dead bodies.”

Four government agents and six Branch Davidian members were killed in a shootout when the ATF tried to raid the ranch, starting the 51-day standoff.

“I wasn’t scared,” she said. “That’s what David said was going to happen. These people were gonna come and they were gonna kill us and we were all gonna die. To me, it wasn’t anything outside of the norm.”

David Thibodeau, the author of “Waco: A Survivor’s Story,” was an adult living in the compound at the time.

“It was very much chaotic, a different lifestyle than what we had been used to,” he told Megyn Kelly in January. “It was obviously an exciting time, but watching daily the press conferences, the FBI was in control of the information the world got. When you’re not able to respond to things on a daily basis that people are saying about you, it becomes very frustrating.”

FBI negotiators were able to secure the release of 21 children into the care of the Methodist Children’s Home in Waco during the first two weeks of the standoff. Vaega fought back tears as she remembered saying goodbye to her mother, who agreed to let her go and gave Vaega a necklace to remember her by.

“My mom was really adamant about doing everything to get me out,” Vaega said. “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.”

The tension continued to escalate following the evacuation of the children. The FBI was also having an internal dispute about tactics and strategy for ending the standoff, according to Gary Noesner, who was one of the FBI negotiators involved in the case.

“There was the negotiation team that wanted to basically engage in dialogue and convince them to come out to share with the world what they thought about things,” Noesner told Megyn Kelly in January. “And there was part of the FBI that wanted to force them out, to tighten the noose as it were, to exert increasing amount of pressure, and those two things ... created a lot of problems for us.”

Gehrmann would usually turn the television on with Vaega at their home in Hawaii to see the latest news about the standoff, but she quickly turned it off when she saw the fire on the final day.

“I came home from school later that day and she sat me down and said my parents had died,” Vaega said. “I didn’t cry. I wasn’t fazed at all because that’s exactly what my parents had told me my whole life would happen to the Branch Davidians.”

Learning to live again

Her reality outside the compound required major adjustments for Vaega after her sister gained legal custody and the two built a life together.

“It was kind of scary, going from being spanked for everything you do to making mistakes as a kid and waiting for the ax to drop,” she said. “Flushing toilets was a big deal, baths were a big deal, even running water in general. I had no idea what anything was. It was like starting completely over.”

She only shared what she had been through with her husband, best friend, sister and immediate family, keeping her past private for 25 years.

“Every decision I made about who I talk to I would consider, ‘What is this person going to think about me if they know?’” she said.

Waco survivor Joann Vaega
Vaega is now a training and development director at a restaurant, a wife, and a mother of two.TODAY

There also has been a revival of interest in the Waco saga this year due to the 25th anniversary of the siege. A host of books and a television miniseries starring Taylor Kitsch as Koresh have been released.

“Waco has had resonance with folks that largely believe that the government has overstepped in some of these areas,” Noesner told Kelly. “With current events, we’ve had a resurgence in folks that have a very strong negative feeling about the government.

“This is a complex situation. It’s one that should not just demonize the Davidians or the FBI. There’s good and bad on both sides.”

Vaega decided to speak publicly in recent years after seeing negative comments being made about the survivors. She is not affiliated with the Branch Davidians and does not want that time as a child to define her.

This summer she returned to the Branch Davidian compound, which is now a tourist attraction, for the first time since she was a teen. She wiped away tears in silence as she took in the scene.

“I never had an aha moment, where my life clicked,” she said. “For me, it was just a whole bunch of small decisions like, ‘Do I want someone to look at me and feel “this poor, pathetic little girl?”’ I never wanted any kind of stereotype to be associated with me because of what happened.”

Get the latest from TODAY

Sign up for our newsletter
MORE FROM today