Photo Of The Day

In a May 16, 1986 photo, the body of Doris Young is removed by officials after the Cokeville Elementary hostage situation in Cokeville, Wyo. On May 16, 1986, a man and his wife with a bomb took the entire student body at the town's only elementary school hostage. David Young demanded $300 million in ransom. The bomb accidentally detonated, and Young shot and killed his wife and then himself. RICK SORENSON/Casper Star-Tribune

In a May 16, 1986 photo, the body of Doris Young is removed by officials after the Cokeville Elementary hostage situation in Cokeville, Wyo. On May 16, 1986, a man and his wife with a bomb took the entire student body at the town’s only elementary school hostage. David Young demanded $300 million in ransom. The bomb accidentally detonated, and Young shot and killed his wife and then himself.?RICK SORENSON/Casper Star-Tribune

The Miracle of Cokeville

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

Cokeville Wyoming was the sight of a parent’s worst nightmare on May 16th, 1986 when a mentally disturbed man and his wife entered an elementary school with guns and a homemade gasoline bomb. ?They kept all the children in a single room while positioning themselves in the middle of it, David and Doris Young began a standoff that would last hours.

David Young, a former town Marshall, he had been the tiny towns only police officer in six months during 1979 and when he was fired, he moved to Tucson, Arizona. He and his wife returned to Cokeville in 1986 and carried out their insidious plan.? Young had a manifesto called “Zero-Infiniti”?and proclaimed “this is a revolution!” as he and his wife took an entire generation – over 160 children, teachers, and school staff, he held them to hostage and wouldn’t release them until he was given over 300 million dollars and a personal phone call from the President of the United States.

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.

The events of that day will never be forgotten by the residents of Cokeville, Wyo. On that Friday afternoon in their quiet, rural town, the deranged couple entered the community?s elementary school, took those inside hostage, and detonated a bomb in a first grade classroom.

At that time, about 500 people lived in Cokeville, and there were slightly more than 154 students attending the elementary school. Located in Lincoln County and nestled between the towns of Star Valley and Kemmerer on the Wyoming-Idaho border, Cokeville, many residents believed, was a safe place to rear children.

Trust is big in Cokeville ? youngsters grow up knowing they can turn to many other members of the community with confidence.

Thus, when David and Doris Young entered the town?s only elementary school with an arsenal of weapons and a gasoline bomb in a grocery cart, no one saw it coming. David Young?s journals and writings reveal that he was a troubled man who spent many years grappling with deep philosophical questions?about man?s existence, the afterlife and spirituality.

Educated at Chadron State College in Nebraska, he had earned a degree in criminal justice, and was hired as Cokeville?s town marshal in the 1970s. He was dismissed, however, from this position shortly after his six-month probationary period. Young met his second wife, Doris Waters, while in Cokeville. She was a divorc?e who earned money working as a waitress and singer in a local bar. Shortly after their wedding, David and Doris left Cokeville and headed to Tucson, Ariz.

During their time in Tucson, according to Doris? daughter Bernie Petersen, David became increasingly reclusive, focusing on his philosophical readings and writings. While he was writing his philosophy, Zero Equals Infinity, Doris took part-time jobs including housekeeping and waitressing to support their meagre lifestyle. They lived in a mobile home with Princess, David?s youngest daughter from his first marriage. He was the father of two, but was estranged from his elder daughter.

It was in their Tucson home that David came up with what he considered ?The Biggie,? a plan to get rich quick and create a ?Brave New World.? This plan involved David?s long-time friends, Gerald Deppe and Doyle Mendenhall, who believed by investing in David?s scheme, that they would get rich. But David refused to reveal his plans entirely until moments before they unfolded.

David?s friends did not know that ?The Biggie? was a plan to take over Cokeville Elementary School, hold each of the children hostage for $2 million dollars apiece, and then detonate the bomb, transporting the money and children to his ?Brave New World,? where he would be God. While David and Doris Young were not involved in an organized religion, both were deeply spiritual. They believed in reincarnation, which probably led, in part, to the creation of David?s ?Brave New World? idea. David?s writings reveal that he hoped life would be better for him and Cokeville?s children in this imaginary place.

David Young, who shot and killed his wife, Doris, after she accidentally set off the bomb in the Cokeville Elementary School, and then shot himself. Casper Star-Tribune Collection, Casper College Western History Center.

David Young, who shot and killed his wife, Doris, after she accidentally set off the bomb in the Cokeville Elementary School, and then shot himself. Casper Star-Tribune Collection, Casper College Western History Center.

When Deppe and Mendenhall finally got wind of his plans moments before the hostage crisis unfolded, they refused to participate. David, who dared not risk their reporting him to the authorities, responded by holding them at gunpoint. He instructed Doris and Princess, by now a young adult, to handcuff them inside his van.

David, Doris, and Princess proceeded to the elementary school and entered the building shortly after 1 p.m. that Friday. David had the makeshift bomb attached to his body and housed inside a grocery cart, while Doris and Princess carried an arsenal of rifles, handguns and ammunition, as well as the Zero Equals Infinity handouts.

But shortly after entering the school, Princess decided to rebel. She fled the building and drove the Young?s van?with Deppe and Mendenhall still inside?to the town hall, where she reported her father?s plan. Because they refused to participate, Princess, Deppe, and Mendenhall were never charged in relation to this crime.

In the meantime, David and Doris Young gathered children, teachers, staff, and visitors in the elementary school into one central location. They attempted to crowd everyone into one of the two first grade classrooms, a room with a total capacity of 30 students and a teacher. David set himself near the centre of the room with the grocery cart bomb nearby, as Doris went from room to room rounding up people.

According to survivor accounts, Doris enticed many into the first grade room by announcing that their presence was required for a school assembly. Most children were elated by the prospects of a random assembly, and upon entering the classroom, the children saw an arsenal of weapons, a grocery cart and an unfamiliar man?David Young.

Some of them believed the assembly was about weapons; others began realizing something was seriously wrong.

The classroom after the bomb was acidentally detonated. As the hours wore on, many of the children became visibly distressed. That's when David transferred the bomb trigger to his wife so that he could use the bathroom.

The classroom after the bomb was?accidentally?detonated. As the hours wore on, many of the children became visibly?distressed. That’s when David transferred the bomb trigger to his wife so that he could use the bathroom.

Once all the hostages were contained in the first grade classroom, David Young informed them that they were leading a revolution and distributed copies of his philosophy Zero Equals Infinity to everyone present. Just before implementing ?the Biggie,? David Young had also sent a copy of the document to President Ronald Reagan, the president of Chadron State College and numerous media outlets. Cokeville Elementary School teachers and staff tried to keep the kindergarteners through to the sixth graders calm and entertained.

Soon, gasoline fumes from the bomb filled the hot, crowded room, making students and teachers sick and convinced Young to allow some windows to be opened. He also allowed teachers to keep their classes together to help them stay calm. The hours ticked by as teachers read stories and students coloured pictures and played with Lego, some also gathered together in groups to pray in the tiny classroom. Fifth grader, Lori Nate Conger, also prayed with some of her classmates. ?I remember thinking, ?David Young can control a lot of things, but he can?t keep us from praying. That?s one thing he cannot do,?? she says.

Young grew increasingly agitated as the afternoon wore on. In an effort to keep the children away from him, teachers used masking tape to create a ?magic square? around the bomb and then instructed the children to stay outside of it.

Eventually, Young stepped away to the restroom, leaving the bomb detonator tied to Doris?s wrist. While he was gone, the unthinkable happened?Doris accidentally jerked the string and then, shortly after 4 p.m., the bomb exploded.

?It was an explosion that I can?t explain?a total instant black, the kind of black that you can?t see anything,? remembers Katie Walker Payne, who was a first grade student at the time. ?I felt compression and heat like nothing I had ever experienced. I heard teachers screaming for everyone to get down. I looked in the center of the room and all I could see was fire.?

?There were flames all over the room and children screaming?just pandemonium,? recalls Carol Petersen, a second grade teacher at the time. ?Another teacher was trying to help me escape. I said, ?I don?t know where my children are! I can?t leave!? but he yelled ?Get?out! Get out!??

Ryan Taylor, 7, with serious burns at the Montpelier, Idaho hospital after the Cokeville bombing.

Ryan Taylor, 7, with serious burns at the Montpelier, Idaho hospital after the Cokeville bombing.

Total chaos ensued. David emerged from the bathroom to find his wife in excruciating pain. He shot and killed her. Students, teachers, staff, and visitors frantically exited the building, with teachers helping many of the children escape through the windows.

Amy Bagaso Williams recalls, ?When I got to the hallway, I felt a tickling sensation on my shoulder and ear. I took a few steps and started feeling heat on my skin?I realized I was on fire.?

She dropped to the floor and started rolling to put out the flames. Soon two teachers ran to her aid and slapped the flames out with their bare hands. ?Then they picked me up and told me to run,? she says.

As the children escaped, David Young began firing a gun inside the smoke-filled classroom. Outside, the music teacher, John Miller, lay on the ground, his white shirt soaked in dark, red blood. None of the children were hit, but Miller was shot in the back as he helped others out of the burning school.

Frantic parents, gathered behind police barricades, cried out for their children as police officers ran toward the school. Ambulances, fire trucks, and news cameras lined the streets.

?I saw bodies all over the lawn, and I didn?t know if they were dead or alive,? recalls Lori Nate Conger.

?Everyone was just so black that you couldn?t recognize anyone. Some kids were badly burned, with skin hanging off their arms and necks. I didn?t even know where?to go or what to do.? Conger continues, ?I found my older brother pretty quickly, and we just started walking toward our home. Then I saw my mother?running down the street. I?ll never forget that reunion when she ran toward us and wrapped us in her arms. For the first time, I remember thinking, ?I?m safe.? It?s something I will never forget.?

Sammy Bennion, Jr., his children Sammy, Nancy and Janaan and their grandmother Verlene Bennion at their home near Cokeville, May 1986. All three children and Verlene, a teacher's aide, were in the classroom at the time of the bombing. Verlene was one of the last people out of the building. Bill Wilcox photo, Casper Star-Tribune Collection, Casper College Western History Center.

Sammy Bennion, Jr., his children Sammy, Nancy and Janaan and their grandmother Verlene Bennion at their home near Cokeville, May 1986. All three children and Verlene, a teacher’s aide, were in the classroom at the time of the bombing. Verlene was one of the last people out of the building. Bill Wilcox photo, Casper Star-Tribune Collection, Casper College Western History Center.

David returned to the restroom and killed himself, ending the hostage crisis. The only two fatalities were David and Doris Young. Everyone else survived, including the injured John Miller.

Reporters from all the regional news outlets were on the scene by the time of the explosion or shortly thereafter. In addition, national reporters began arriving within hours of the explosion. Students, teachers, visitors, staff who survived the ordeal and bystanders began recounting their memories of this event as it was still unfolding.

Following the explosion, 79 children were taken to area hospitals, most of which were located more than an hour?s drive from Cokeville, for treatment for burns and smoke inhalation. Survivors shared their stories with each other, investigators, family members, and hospital personnel. In the days and weeks immediately after this event, most accounts focused on the horrors of the day.

Ron Hartley, lead investigator for the Lincoln County Sheriff?s Office, had four children who survived the bombing. When he arrived at the scene, he was immediately told that the physical evidence didn?t add up.

?I met the bomb tech right there at the door, and he said, ?Hartley, what you have here is a miracle. That bomb should have levelled the wing of this school, but it looks like the bomb blast went straight up. I don?t know why?I can?t explain it.??

Young?s homemade bomb was contained inside an old shopping cart.? It was a sophisticated bomb consisting of layers of wooden shelves with hundreds of rounds of ammunition on top, a layer of gasoline below, and tuna fish cans full of powder, resting on top of blasting caps.? Young had tested an identical bomb inside an old school bus.? It had worked perfectly.

Rich Haskell explained how the bomb was designed to work:

?When the blasting caps triggered, particles from the cans would go into the air, mix with the gasoline, which was on a time delay, and ignite in a fireball. The explosion would travel outward in a 360-degree circle, engulfing the room in flames.?

In the days after the bombing, more astonishing evidence came to light.

To their surprise, experts discovered that only one of the bomb?s five blasting caps had gone off. The wires to the other four caps were mysteriously cut. In addition, the container holding the gasoline had sprung a leak turning the volatile powder in the tuna fish cans into a paste. And the gasoline fumes had made some of the children sick.? After a few threw up in trashcans, Young allowed the teachers to open a window, creating a vent that would buffer the force of the blast. According to investigators at the time, if the bomb had functioned as designed, it would have blown off the entire southwest side of the school building.

Still, an explosion of this magnitude, and the thousands of bits of flying shrapnel it had dispersed, should have killed more people but for one very important reason ? the force of the blast had not radiated outward in the direction they would have expected.? Analysis of the scene revealed that much of the force had been directed upward.? Experts still cannot explain how or why.

CNN wrote: ?That every child and adult was spared in the bombing is nothing short of a miracle.?

Photo by Bill Wilcox/Casper Star-Tribune Collection, Casper College Western History Centre. George Moore helps his 7-year-old son Jeremiah on the boy?s first day back in school in Cokeville on May 20, 1986, four days after a bomber took the school hostage.

Photo by Bill Wilcox/Casper Star-Tribune Collection, Casper College Western History Centre. George Moore helps his 7-year-old son Jeremiah on the boy?s first day back in school in Cokeville on May 20, 1986, four days after a bomber took the school hostage.

Forensic evidence aside, the town residents began to realize that a series of ?lucky? events had preceded the bombing, events that ended up saving the lives of the children who had been injured. For instance, the town was full of emergency responders who happened to be in the area working a flood that had occurred the week before.? And two weeks prior to the incident, the volunteer fire department had, for the first time, practiced for how to treat the elementary school if it were to catch on fire.? Their experience was honed over the next two weeks as an electrical short in the school?s alarm kept setting it off initiating a series of unplanned, but beneficial, fire drills.

As time progressed, however, a different story emerged in this highly religious and largely Mormon community. It became a story of a miracle rather than a tragedy. Oral histories, memoirs, and drawings began to reveal a narrative of fortune rather than misfortune. Survivors began to tell their stories through a spiritual lens. They increasingly spoke about their memories in public with professional psychologists, church officials, and community counsellors.

Several children reported seeing angels in the classroom that day, including many children who claimed to have seen a “beautiful lady” or person all in white who told them to go near the window. Other children reported seeing an angel over each child’s head. All of the children who saw angels were shown several photos to identify the beings. Every child responded to the photos of an ancestor saying, “That’s her/him!”

Many recalled praying silently, forming prayer circles, and seeing angels during the crisis. This narrative was perpetuated in many publications and productions.

For instance, The Cokeville Miracle Foundation?s 2005 book Witness to Miracles: Remembering the Cokeville Elementary School Bombing and the Wyoming State Archives oral history project called ?Survivor is My Name? both focused on the reconstructing of this narrative as a miracle instead of a tragedy.

Kameron Wixom, son of Hartt and Judene Wixom, writes a ?childlike faith saved us.? Kameron said: ?I didn?t have to see angels, hear them, or even think that their presence might be required that day. I did not have to imagine how God would move ? that day when I said my little prayer just hours before, I simply knew he would. He did deliver our salvation that day. That much I know. I?m living proof.?

COKEVILLE MIRACLE

?Cokeville recollects ‘miracle’ of 1986

Cokeville Elementary School hostage crisis

Survivor is My Name

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