Survival at Cokeville Elementary

Published May 17, 2006 12:51 am
Hostage takers were the only fatalities; 154 miracles: Kids, educators recall '86 siege, bombing
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COKEVILLE, Wyo. - Imagine this: a Wyoming farm town with rusty bicycles, undisturbed trampolines, empty playgrounds. A cemetery with 154 headstones bearing the same day of death. A town that had lost a generation.

That was the image Stewart Petersen asked 200 gathered here Tuesday to consider and then to discard.

Because Cokeville, one of the first American communities to suffer a horrific act of school violence, was spared that fate May 16, 1986.

"We're here because no [innocents] died," Mayor Karla Toomer told another group of survivors, their parents and those who helped Cokeville in the aftermath. "We're here to show gratitude."

It has taken 20 years, but Cokeville is taking steps to publicly remember the moment the community lost its innocence - and strengthened its faith.

On a sunny day much like Tuesday, David Young, a "delusional genius" who had done a short stint as Cokeville's marshal years earlier, and his wife held 154 students, teachers and administrators hostage for nearly three hours.

When Doris Young accidentally triggered their bomb, a fireball darkened the room with smoke, allowing the hostages to flee the first-grade classroom. Children were burned, some seriously, cut and bruised. One teacher was shot in the back and would quickly recover.

But only the bombers died; David Young shot his badly injured wife and then himself.

Sharon Dayton, a rancher and hunting-fishing guide whose wife, Janel, survived the bombing, says he has always been "a little bit embarrassed and ashamed" that this community of 870 people, including farmers and ranchers, has not done more to memorialize that miracle.

Time heals, but sometimes, healing requires a nudge.

That came in 2003, when Dayton and a cadre of townspeople organized the Cokeville Miracle Foundation. It's a civic group that plans, among other things, to raise more than $2 million for a memorial sculpture and building.

Its first big project was the book Witness to Miracles, a collection of reflections from those who were in Cokeville that day 20 years ago. It was published this spring, in time for Tuesday's Day of Remembrance.

"People weren't ready 10 years ago or five years ago," says Dayton. The exercise of telling their stories has been good, he says. "For some people, this has made a big difference."

Since the day it happened, Cokeville has been aware that it was fortunate.

Richard Haskell, a Sweetwater County detective, returned to Cokeville on Tuesday "to talk to the kids," now young adults with families of their own.

Twenty years ago, he was the stunned bomb technician who, analyzing the scene, could not account for what had happened.

The explosive device Young made - and tested on a school bus in Arizona - was such that "nobody should have walked out of that room," Haskell says.

Not only had a leaking gasoline jug turned explosive powder to goo, wires leading to two blasting caps had been snipped.

"I know angels were here. No doubt in my mind," says Haskell.

Nathan Hartley, a 6-year-old kindergartner at the time, says that's true. Now a young man, he remembers an elderly woman telling him to go near the window just before the bomb exploded. His back was burned but he escaped through one of the two windows along with dozens of other youngsters.

He found the woman's picture later. She was his great-grandmother, who had died several years earlier.

His sister, Brenda Hartley Bateman, was in sixth grade. She said she did not see an angel, but was washed with peace when the thought hit her that she would soon die.

Years later, she can say: "I have no fear of death."

Their father, Ron, was the Lincoln County sheriff's investigator who would spend months poring over Young's diaries. He concluded that Young targeted Cokeville because he considered the children especially intelligent, the kind of kids he wanted to join him after reincarnating into a new world he would dominate.

Lori Nate Conger of Layton says she was "scared of my shadow" for years. Only recently did she tell her three children what happened to her in sixth grade.

Now, she realizes how fragile and precious life is.

"I learned to just trust in God. He was in charge that day."

Clara Dayton, one of the few Catholics in this largely Mormon town, says she, too, has no doubt of divine intervention.

But it seems as if some of her neighbors believe Cokeville was graced because of its dominant faith, not because God answers the prayers of his children, she says.

That has turned off some residents who want no part of a "faith-promoting" remembrance, she says.

"God didn't come to help us because it's a Mormon community," says Dayton.

Joanna Metcalf Stowell, a child hostage who later went on an LDS mission, agrees.

When others suffer violent attacks, she says, "God does not love them less and us more. We are not better. But we are blessed."



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