Ryan Morgenegg, Deseret News
T.C. Christensen, left, Katie Walker Payne and Jennie Johnson spoke at the annual conference on Family History and Genealogy about how dead ancestors protected their loved ones during the Cokeville bomb blast.

PROVO — Attendees at the 47th annual Conference on Family History and Genealogy packed a conference room and overflow area July 31 on the campus of Brigham Young University to hear from Mormon filmmaker T.C. Christensen (“17 Miracles,” “Ephraim’s Rescue,” “Work and the Glory”) about his new film, “The Cokeville Miracle.”

At the core of the presentation were the experiences of a number of children who were held hostage by a deranged husband and wife with guns and a bomb at an elementary school on May 16, 1986, in Cokeville, Wyoming. Many of the survivors testify that divine intervention saved the lives of 154 people.

“Most children that had a spiritual experience said it was an ancestor that helped them,” said Christensen. “Children were able to see those who had passed on.”

A clip from the movie shows an interchange with one of the school children, a young boy, and an adult discussing what happened.

“There were other people in the room with us,” said the boy.

“You mean the teachers?” asked the adult.

“The ones in white,” said the child. “She said the bomb was going to go off. If I stood by the window. everything would be OK.”

Later in the movie, the young boy identifies the woman in white he spoke with from a family photo album as his dead grandmother.

Christensen quoted Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: "From the beginning down through the dispensations, God has used angels as his emissaries in conveying love and concern for his children. … Usually such beings are not seen. Sometimes they are. But seen or unseen they are always near. Sometimes their assignments are very grand and have significance for the whole world. Sometimes the messages are more private. Occasionally the angelic purpose is to warn. But most often it is to comfort, to provide some form of merciful attention, guidance in difficult times” (October 2008, general conference, "The Ministry of Angels").

Katie Walker Payne, one of the child survivors from Cokeville, also spoke at the presentation.

“Those who love us and have passed on are near us,” she said. According to Payne, her grandmother, whom she had never met, appeared to her the day of the tragedy and helped save her life. Payne was 7 years old and in the first grade at that time. Several years later, she identified her grandmother in a family locket.

“The woman in the locket was the only photo my mother had," she said. "At age 15 I saw her photo the way I saw her (as a child) so I would recognize her.”

“Many kids testified of their ancestors running with them, leading them out of the school or helping them hide in a closet,” said Jennie Johnson, another child survivor from Cokeville who was also 7 years old at the time of the tragedy.

“After the bomb went off, I thought one of the teachers at the school was helping me. I didn’t recognize her but she led me out by the hand and told me not to go back.” Later, in about the fifth grade, Johnson said she was looking in a family photo album and recognized the "teacher." It was her deceased aunt who had died several years before the events in Cokeville.

For the survivors, seeing the new movie is an emotional trigger. Many, along with their children, worked as extras in the film.

“If my ancestor can pull a handcart, I can overcome that tragedy,” Payne said. “It’s a great comfort to testify to you that they are true. I am grateful to be a witness to angels.”

rmorgenegg@desnews.com