OREM — The children taken hostage by a couple in a small classroom in Cokeville, Wyoming, nearly 30 years ago still jump at loud noises and worry at the smell of smoke.
Katie Walker was 7 and in the first grade that day — the day she says her deceased grandmother (whom she'd never met) came to help her get out of the burning classroom after a bomb exploded.
"I live with daily triggers," said Walker after the LDS Film Festival screening of filmmaker T.C. Christensen's "The Cokeville Miracle" on March 7. "A lot of it our brains didn't process then because we were so young. It's taken years to sort through it.
"It taught us at a very young age that the Lord answers our prayers and it helped create a pretty unique bond in our town. We were not alone."
Lori Nate Conger, who was 11 at the time, said the incident at Cokeville Elementary on May 16, 1986, was a terrifying experience.
It began when a man and his wife, David and Doris Young, walked into the elementary school in the tiny town of Cokeville with a homemade bomb and a battery of guns. After everyone was gathered in one room, the bomb was prematurely detonated — but miraculously, only the couple were killed.
"I firmly believe this is a story that needs to be told," Conger said on a night when the 700-seat theater at the SCERA Center for the Arts was filled.
Kam Wixom was 12 at the time of the incident and in the sixth grade. He was bold enough at the time to ask questions of David and Doris Young. "Why are you doing this? How long do we have to stay here?"
Wixom said he now realizes the audacity of his behavior, but wasn't scared at the time.
"It was calming," he said. "I felt a presence."
The survivors agreed that the anxious hours spent in that elementary school classroom bonded them as a town and as friends in a unique way.
Walker said Christensen was unusually sensitive to the survivors' needs and desire for the story to be told right. Christensen even arranged a private screening for Cokeville residents.
"We didn't want a lot of focus on the insanity and the physical damage but more on the spiritual impact," Walker said. "He's done a very good job with our story."
Wixom said the release of the film is a triumph and provides closure for the people of Cokeville. "This feels right," he said.
The children in the film deal with the frightening changes as children do. Some have inappropriate questions they just put out there. Some innocently correct and censure David Young (played by Nathan Stevens), who threatens to shoot them and blow them up but who also wants them to have access to the bathroom.
Meanwhile, the adults have issues going on in their own lives about God and faith. In one family, the father can't reconcile what he sees every day as a police officer with a loving God.
There are surprises and miracles that keep the children and teachers herded into Classroom 4 alive. In addition to the prayers and protection from heavenly beings, there are numerous coincidences that help save lives.
One father, Ron Hartley (played by Jasen Wade), sincerely doubts his wife's faith. Even after his son tells him about "light-bulb people" standing guard in the classroom, he can't accept it wholesale.
He has to wrestle it to the ground.
This is a story stranger than fiction. It's tough to understand people who could do this kind of horrific thing to little children and innocent people. It's almost easier to understand the protection offered by angels — angels summoned by the prayers said around the room by the kids, by the high school students and by those in the TV audience around the world.
Christensen acknowledges in the credits that not all tragedies are resolved miraculously and that "we don't know why."
But the Hartley family mantra goes, "It's too much of a coincidence to be a coincidence."
"The Cokeville Miracle," which is not yet rated and has a running time of 93 minutes, is scheduled for limited release June 5.
Content advisory: There are scenes that would be scary for young children and a bomb explodes. Adults yell at children.
Sharon Haddock is a professional writer with more than 35 years' experience, 17 at the Deseret News. Her personal blog is at sharonhaddock.blogspot.com.
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