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Cokeville recollects ‘miracle’ of 1986

Hostage survivors, town residents compile book

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COKEVILLE, Wyo. — Some places are branded by disaster, by the stories of one horrible day that no one can forget: Oklahoma City, Columbine, the Twin Towers. What sets Cokeville apart is that the story of its horrible day is about what almost happened but didn't.

The short version is that on May 16, 1986, two people held 154 children hostage in an elementary school classroom, a bomb exploded and every one of those children survived. The heart-stopping events in this remote town — so remote that in 1986 it wasn't on some highway maps — made headlines around the world.

To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the bombing, a group called the Cokeville Miracle Foundation has compiled a 500-page book full of reminiscences written by many of the people who lived through that day: teachers, parents, emergency workers, the child hostages who are now all grown up. The book's title, "Witness to Miracles," conveys the community's certainty that random luck had nothing to do with the town's good fortune. And just to drive home the point, the front cover includes, in letters that stretch from top to bottom, the words "In God We Trust."

Rather than dwelling on the fact that scary things can happen, that bad guys can show up even in a place as out-of-the-way and innocent as Cokeville, the grassroots Cokeville Miracle Foundation is choosing to remember the bombing as proof that their prayers were answered.

The book and a 20th anniversary remembrance program planned for Tuesday are not about dredging up past horrors, says Mayor Karla Toomer. And it's not about publicity, she says. Although at first blush the media invitations to the May 16 event might seem like a town hoping to hold on to its share of fame, Toomer says that some people would be just as happy if the media didn't even show up.

Gratitude and healing are the goals, she says. One hundred and eighty-seven people have written entries for the book, and some former residents are returning to Cokeville for the anniversary event.

There have been news accounts and anniversary stories and books and a made-for-TV movie about that day. "But the only way to tell this story is first-hand," Toomer says. "People always try to rewrite other people's words." The compilation of accounts in "Witness to Miracles" comes at the near-tragic event from 187 different angles, based on age and temperament and who was where in that room, or outside it, waiting.

But participation in this 20th anniversary event isn't unanimous. "There's a lot of people, in conversation, who say, 'Each time it's brought up, it's opening scabs,' " reports John Jackman, the town's police chief. And some people complain that "it's almost a memorial to the two that died," he adds, referring to David Young and his wife, Doris, the couple who held the children hostage and died during the incident.

"Some stories are very private, sacred and reserved for the intimate moment," according to the Cokeville Miracle Foundation in the book's preface, acknowledging the people who chose not to participate in the compilation. "Some stories are filled with fear or anger." But, notes the foundation, other residents "want to remember and acknowledge the hand of God that guided the miracle and spared a generation of children."

Located in Wyoming's southwest corner, along the Idaho border, Cokeville was once the largest sheep shipper in the United States. It's also reported to be home to a bank that Butch Cassidy robbed, although today the bank is just one of many boarded-up storefronts on Main Street. Today's population of 506 is just about exactly what it was in 1986, and Cokeville Elementary School, which sits just off Main, is still the town's biggest employer.

Despite what happened 20 years ago, most people here still don't lock their houses or their cars. Although sometimes people are skittish about strangers, when a Salt Lake reporter and photographer showed up at the wrong house last week, the family inside welcomed them in with a big smile before asking who they were.

The ordeal of May 16, 1986, began just after lunch. Some of the younger students had just returned from a "teddy-bear picnic" at the city park, and in Carol Petersen's second-grade classroom the children had just gathered in reading groups when a strange woman walked into the room.

"There's an emergency in Room 2," the woman said. "Bring your children and come quickly." Petersen thought it was strange to be taking her students toward an emergency, but when the woman insisted, Petersen lined up her 24 students and followed. Pretty soon every child and every teacher in the school was ushered into that 30-by-30-foot room, where a scruffy man stood in the middle, holding on to a cart. The room smelled like gasoline, and there were guns lined up against the chalkboard. The bomb's trigger was a clothespin, attached to the man's wrist with a shoelace.

The man told them he was starting a revolution. He demanded $2 million for each child in the room, a demand that principal Max Excell tried without luck to relay to the White House. As for the teachers, "Your lives don't mean anything to me," Petersen remembers the man saying. But the woman did most of the talking. "She said, 'Some day you'll be famous for this. You'll write about it in your journals.' "

The teachers tried to distract the children with singing and a video, but the songs tended to trail off, and the video only held their interest for a short while. On their own, the children took turns praying.

At about 3:45 p.m., the man handed the shoelace and clothespin switch to the woman and went across the hall to the bathroom. A few minutes later there was an explosion, apparently set off when the woman accidentally moved her arm the wrong way. Witnesses remember seeing her fly across the room "like a flaming torch." The room immediately was dark with smoke.

"You couldn't see in front of you, all you could do was feel," remembers Jody Pope Keetch, who was a kindergartner then. Some of the children's clothes and hair were on fire. Teachers put out the fires and pushed some of the children out the windows. "When your feet hit the ground, run," Keetch remembers a teacher telling them.

Outside, parents frantically began trying to find their children. "Carl. Where's my Carl?" Petersen remembers a father screaming. The man was kneeling, frantically pulling up grass and throwing it over his shoulder. No one knew how many children might still be inside the building, dead or injured. No one knew whether other bombs might still explode.

But it turned out that there were no other explosions. That's part of the miracle, say Cokeville residents. For some reason, only one of the bomb's five blasting caps went off. According to investigators at the time, if the bomb had functioned properly, it would have blown off the side of the building. And there were lots of smaller miracles, too, residents say. When firefighter Lyle Forrest entered the smoke-filled classroom to look for children, he found himself crawling on a pile of guns, but none of them went off. Keetch tells about the ambulance she rode in to Star Valley: The fan belt broke on the way to the hospital; two truckers stopped to help, and one of them had a fan belt that fit exactly.

"Witness to Miracles" includes several stories of children who reported seeing angels in the classroom that day. Glenna Walker's children saw a "beautiful lady" who told them to go near the window. Other children reported seeing an angel over each child's head. These stories do not surprise the people of Cokeville, most of whom belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In the end, although 79 people were injured, only David and Doris Young died. According to police, it appears that Young shot his burning wife when he came back from the bathroom after the explosion. Then he went back into the bathroom and shot himself.

David Young was a former Cokeville resident who had moved to Tucson, Ariz. He had been the town's only police officer for six months in 1979, before he was fired. Town residents remembered him as a "Wyatt Earp" type who loved guns and wore a six-shooter on his hip on his day off. Investigators found 41 rambling journals, including one in which Young called 1986 "The Year of the Biggie." On the day of the bombing, Young had handed out a typewritten document that quoted Socrates and Shakespeare, and his own equation, "zero equals infinity."

Twenty years later, the smell of stale gasoline can still make Jody Keetch nauseated, and men with beards make her anxious. Firefighter and EMT Steven Moore still chokes up when he recalls the most vivid part of that day: "The sight of my daughter in a truck, safe, going down the highway with my sister. I'll remember that till the day I die." His wife, he says, still can't talk about any of it. EMT Debbie Sparks says one of her younger sisters, who was a hostage, will always get up and walk out of the room if anyone brings up the bombing.

But the town needs to remember it, Sparks says. "We need to remember it to remember how blessed we are."

The current crop of elementary school children aren't taught about the bombing, but most know the general story, if not all the details, says Keetch. "I tell them about it if they ask," says kindergarten teacher Janel Dayton. "I don't go out of my way to tell them."

"They're not scared by it," says firefighter Moore. "For a young kid, that's old history, when their parents were little. When dinosaurs were roaming the earth," he laughs. The classroom — "the bomb room," children called it for several years — is now a computer lab.

On a patch of range land, a half-mile north of town, Sharon Dayton envisions a memory grove that would include a bronze statue. At the bottom would be a 13-foot hand — the hand of God — and in the hand would be statues of children and teachers, twice life-size. If commissioned, the statue would cost $145,000, about $10,000 of which has been raised so far, he says. The Cokeville Miracle Foundation also raises money for college scholarships, and for dental work and eyeglasses and telephones for people in need.

Dayton, a compassionate cowboy of a man and the chairman of the foundation, cries when he talks about the children who reported seeing angels in the classroom before the bomb exploded. A statue like the one he imagines could "touch the lives of many people," he says. Its scale and its subject matter would make it a "must-see place."

Maybe, he adds, "it might be able to turn around the idea to not have prayers in classrooms and the Ten Commandments in courtrooms." Were the angels in the classroom there "legally"? he asks. "Can we memorialize them with public funds?" These are the kinds of questions a memorial like this would force people to think about, he says. If there were ever a court case about the statue, he says, "people would have to look at the angels as a historical event."

E-mail: jarvik@desnews.com