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Cokeville miracle marking 25 years

Published: Friday, Aug. 28 2015 9:57 a.m. MDT

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.

The miracles

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.”

A while 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.

The bomb Young had on the shopping cart was homemade and powerful enough to destroy a section of the school. Moments before the explosion, Young handed the shoelace and clothespin to his wife and went across the hall to the bathroom. Doris Young apparently didn’t realize how sensitive the trigger mechanism was and accidently caused it to go off.

The blast knocked Williams off her feet. The room erupted in chaos as children ran screaming in the dark, smoke-filled room. While many kids, including her friends Amber Kemp and BranDee Prows, escaped through the window, Williams crawled toward a light at the doorway. She crossed paths with David Young at the door, and he tried to grab her shirt, but the tide of running children prevented him. She escaped but saw flames on her shirt and felt an odd, tickling sensation on her shoulder. She started rolling to try to put it out, but the burning sensation only intensified. She was saved from further burns when some teachers found her and slapped out the flames. Then they told her to run.

Outside the school, parents scrambled to find their children. As Williams emerged, she could feel she was severely burned but was in a state of shock. She started wandering down the street and found music teacher John Miller lying in his own blood. He had been shot. Williams learned later that after Young failed to grab her, he sprayed bullets into the black room. Some kids were grazed by whizzing bullets, but none were hit; Miller, however, took one in the spine. He later recovered.

Miraculously, everyone was eventually accounted for except for the Youngs. Upon finding his burning wife, Young shot her and then returned to the bathroom and shot himself.

It should have been worse. Bomb experts later discovered that only one of the bomb’s five blasting caps went off. When firefighter Lyle Forrest entered the dark room to look for children, he found himself on a pile of guns, but none of them went off.

There are also reports of several children seeing angels. For example, Glenna Walker’s children saw a “beautiful lady” who told them to go near the window right before the explosion. When looking at a picture in a locket later, one of the children identified the lady as Walker’s deceased mother.

Williams had third-degree burns on her face, neck and back. Because there were more than 75 injured, ambulances were dispatched to Montpelier, Idaho; Kemmerer, Wyo.; Evanston, Wyo.; and to Utah. Her parents drove her to Montpelier, where the hospital had not received word of the bombing. “Get prepared for a long night,” Williams' father told them.

Williams was lying in a hospital bed when she learned two Melchizedek priesthood holders were going room to room giving blessings. She asked for a blessing.

“The blessing said Heavenly Father was there and watched over us, that he loves us, and although this terrible thing happened and my body was burned horribly, that I would heal and have no scars,” Williams said with emotion. “The scars I would have to overcome would be scars of forgiveness and trust.”

Her pediatrician, a member of the LDS Church, didn’t think such a promise was realistic, but Williams, feeling the same peaceful feeling she had felt earlier, believed the blessing. New skin grew in, and to this day she has no scarring, despite severe burns.

“It was a miracle. I healed completely. Nobody has any idea I was in the Cokeville bombing,” she said.

The anniversary

To commemorate the 20th anniversary in 2006, a group called the Cokeville Miracle Foundation compiled a 500-page book of accounts by many people who lived through the fateful day and titled it “Witness to Miracles.” Susan Fiscus, Karla Toomer and Chemene Petersen gathered information for the book. Survivors and residents of Cokeville were invited to a town celebration, and some talked about the event for the first time in two decades. Nothing formal is planned for this year.

“Some were opposed to it, but it went really well. It was well done,” Fiscus said.

The bombing is still a sensitive topic for many survivors and residents 25 years later, but many have provided oral histories for the Wyoming State Historical Society.

Even so, residents and survivors don’t like to discuss their spiritual experiences publicly. After three books, a made-for-TV movie and other TV and media coverage, some haven’t appreciated the way the facts have been portrayed, Fiscus said. Some mistakenly feel shame for what happened, as if it could have been prevented. “Sometimes things just happen to innocent people,” Fiscus said. “We want people to remember we won, 154 to two, and that miracles still happen today.”

That is how Prows, Kemp and Williams are remembering it.

Gas fumes still make her sick, but Prows, a Cokeville resident, still tells her two children how blessed she is to be on this earth.

“Obviously the Lord was with us,” she said.

Kemp, who lives in Buhl, Idaho, was just telling her daughter the story last week. She thinks about it every time there is a school shooting or similar incident reported in the news.

“The biggest thing I remember is how amazed I was that we all got out alive,” Kemp said. “God was watching over us. There is no other way.”

Williams, who lives in Herriman, Utah, with her husband and two children, feels the same way. She admits she is extra protective of her kids as a result of her experience but is reminded almost on a daily basis of how lucky she is to be alive with healthy skin. She doesn’t know why she was healed and others weren’t, but her life changed that day. Four years after bombing, she was baptized a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “The bombing sent me on a mission for religion. I knew something special happened that day.”

Williams views the month of May as a second birthday. She is expecting to deliver her third child during the week of May 16.

“May is a special month for me. Most people evaluate their lives in January, but for me, it’s May. It’s spring, the flowers come out, the weather turns warm. It’s such a renewing feeling for me. It’s a month I count my blessings and think about how I can be a better person,” she said.

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