COKEVILLE, Wyo. — Amy Bagaso Williams was a fifth-grader when a couple used a bomb while taking hostages at her Wyoming school on May 16, 1986.
A quarter of a century later, Williams can still vividly recall the chaotic scene following the explosion. She can describe in great detail the suffocating black smoke, the ear-splitting screams and the unbearable feeling of being on fire.
It was a day that changed many lives.
But what stands out to Williams and others on the 25th anniversary of the Cokeville Elementary School crisis is how the Lord was watching over them.
"You come to realize there are no coincidences. Too many things happened to the point that all of us survived that day," Williams said. "It was not an accident, it was a loving Heavenly Father who had a plan for all these children. He prevented it from turning into a horrible tragedy."
The unforgettable day
It's a story that has been told many times. After lunch that day, students, teachers and staff were settling back into their classrooms when a woman with "scraggly hair" and glasses began coming around saying there was an emergency and everyone needed to move quickly to the first-grade room. No one had a reason to question the woman. Many thought it was a fire drill. Williams knew something was wrong.
"I remember feeling strange, like stranger danger. As we walked down the hallway, the whole school was quiet and the classrooms were empty. But we did as we were told," she said.
As they filed into the 30-by-30-foot room, they saw a scruffy man with a string on his wrist attached to something on a shopping cart. Behind him, guns lined the chalkboard, and they were assaulted by the nauseating smell of gasoline. Soon the whole school was there, more than 160 children and teachers. Some children were already crying.
The man was David Young and the woman was Doris, his wife. Seven years earlier, David Young had been a policeman in Cokeville but was fired for misconduct. Now he was back, and he was starting a revolution. He read a declaration and shared his vision of a "brave, new world," many recall. He also had demands. He wanted $2 million for each child (totaling around $300 million) and he wanted President Ronald Reagan on the phone.
What was going on, Williams and others wondered. Principal Max Excell told Amy, 10, they were being held hostage. Many kids didn't even know what the word hostage meant. Williams did because she had read it in a Sweet Valley High novel. "That's when it sunk in that it was serious," she said.
Due to the overpowering smell, Young allowed some windows to be opened. In an effort to calm the children, Young also allowed the teachers to group them in classes. For the next few hours, kids colored, some watched a video and others prayed. Outside the school, parents gathered and tried not to fear the worst-case scenario. Some had multiple children inside. More prayers were uttered.
While Williams sat with her class, a teacher quietly asked her if she wanted to pray with her and some other students. She had never said a prayer before. She had been raised in a Catholic home and knew the Lord's Prayer, but that was it. But she scooted over anyway.
"It was a prayer like I had never heard. As I listened, I got this overwhelming sense of love, comfort and peace. I knew everything would be OK," said Williams, whose little brother Andy, a third-grader, was also in the room. "That prayer changed my attitude from despair and not seeing my family again to a feeling of comfort."
Awhile later, some children complained of thirst. Williams asked if she could take a jar of water around and give kids a drink. Young approved, and she filled an old mayonnaise jar and began making the rounds. She had her back turned to the bomb around 3:45 p.m. when it exploded.
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