On May 16, 1986, when former town marshal David Gary Young and his wife Doris Young took 154 children and 13 teachers hostage at Cokeville Elementary school in Wyoming, and kept them at bay with a shopping-cart sized bomb attached to five hairpin-trigger blast caps, it should have ended in great tragedy – one of the worst in American history. Yes, the bomb did explode and it exploded in a room packed full of children, but the only persons to die that day were Mr. Young and his wife. In what is called “The Cokeville Miracle”, the lives of the children and teachers were miraculously spared. If you ask residents of the town how such a thing could happen, they will look you in the eye, smile, and answer in one word – Angels.
Cokeville – old-fashioned America at its best
Located in Wyoming’s southwest corner, along the Idaho border, Cokeville is a small community of less than 1,000 people. Their only claim to fame is a boarded-up bank on main street that was once robbed by Butch Cassidy. They know each other by name, leave their doors unlocked at night, and proudly proclaim that the Cokeville Elementary School is the town’s biggest employer. They are strong believers in a higher power and if you argue otherwise, they will throw down the gauntlet and tell the tale of the events that transpired on May 16, the day an army of mysterious ethereal entities were sent to protect their precious children.
The events began unfolding just after lunch on May 16, 1986 when an unknown woman walked from classroom to classroom, interrupting the teachers lessons, and announcing that there was an emergency in Room 2 and that the teachers should rush the children there right away. Although the request seemed strange, the teachers complied and soon the 30 foot by 30 foot room was packed full of all 154 children and 13 teachers.
As they entered the room, each teacher was handed a typewritten manifesto with quotes from Shakespeare and Socrates and a mysterious title across the top of the paper that read, “Zero equals Infinity”. Standing in the middle of the room was a raggedy, scruffy-looking man with wild eyes, arms resting on a shopping cart threaded with dozens of wires and filled with metal and other material that a witness recalled “smelled like gasoline”. A rope was attached from the cart to the man’s wrist, held there with a clothespin. Behind him, leaning against the chalkboard, were a line of guns – four rifles and nine handguns. The man pointedly told the hostages that he could, at a moment’s notice, simply twitch his arm to trigger the bomb.
The woman, Doris Young, did most of the talking and explained to the classroom full of people that they were starting a revolution and that each child in the room was required to pay $2 million dollars (investigators later discovered that the money was to be put into a “fund” that the Young’s would use after they were reincarnated). The Young’s believed that a community that loved its children, with strong roots in the Church, would listen to their demands – and comply. Meanwhile, across town a teenage girl rushed into the Town Hall shouting that her father had taken a large bomb into the local elementary school. Emergency management coordinator Kathy Davison instructed the town clerk to call dispatchers.
Inside the classroom, Doris Young attempted to twist the situation to her advantage. She told the children:
“Some day you’ll be famous for this. You’ll write about it in your journals and you’ll have a great story for your grandchildren.”
Although not quite for the reasons the unstable Doris Young believed, as it turned out, her proclamation would indeed ring true.
Chaos and salvation
As the hostage situation dragged on for several hours, teachers busied the children with videos, stories, and songs but of course, their little minds inevitably wandered back to the situation at hand. As tensions mounted, some of the younger children began to edge towards David Young. Visibly irritated, Young instructed the teachers to push the tables and chairs to the edges of the room and to tape a square on the floor around the bomb located in the middle. He announced, “Cross this line of death and I’ll start shooting the grown-ups. I’ll shoot everyone if I have to!” Teachers called it the “magic square” and told the children to stay away from it.
As they waited, on their own, the children began to pray. One surviving teacher recalls:
“The kids were sitting in circles, and, as I looked over at them, you could see the circles would be saying a prayer. And they were all doing that. It was amazing to me.”
Around 3:45 P.M. the man, who witnesses noted was growing more and more agitated at the 100+ children crying and praying, handed the rope to the woman and quickly left the room. The woman attached the clothespin to her wrist, ensuring the triggering mechanism was tightly secured to her body.
One child, named Nathan, explained what happened to him at that precise moment:
“I was sitting in the classroom playing with a toy when something made me look up. That’s when I saw the angels. They were shiny, with flowing white robes. Some were holding hands. They glided down through the ceiling, then hung in the air for a second. I felt totally safe. Everyone seemed to have an angel. They came down next to us. My angel was a beautiful shining woman. It was almost as if she landed on my shoulder. She said, “Don’t be scared, Nathan. Get up and go to the window. The bomb is about to go off.” I did just what she said. Other children started doing the same thing.”
As the children’s prayers grew louder, Doris Young too became irritated and begged the teachers to settle the “unruly” group down. In one careless instant (some say she was startled), her animated movements pulled the cord on her wrist too tight. The bomb exploded prematurely, sending her flying across the room “like a flaming torch”. As survivors would later attest, and against all rational explanations, a tragedy of immense proportions had not been set into motion. Instead, the Cokeville Miracle had begun.
Salvation and Penance
The room quickly filled with smoke so dark, occupants could not see the person sitting right next to them. One teacher recalls, “You couldn’t see in front of you, all you could do was feel.” Students reported seeing a bright flash followed by a mushroom-shaped cloud of smoke. Some recollect being thrown completely across the room, smashing into the walls. One remembers the carpet on the wall igniting, bursting into flames, and burning her arm.
Immediately after the detonation, teachers began feeling their way around the room, groping for children, snuffing out the flames on their clothing when a burning child was found in the dark. They began lifting children out of a blown-out window and instructing them. “When your feet hit the ground, run.” Anxious parents waiting outside snatched the exiting children and rushed them to safety behind a gauntlet of emergency vehicles. The Billings Gazette explained how one child’s story played out:
“Lori Nate was thrown back against the wall. In the darkness, she heard someone speak and caught her bearings. She crawled for the door. When she ran out the school’s side door, she realized she didn’t know where her younger brother, Kevin, was. She tried to run back in, but the firefighters wouldn’t let her.”
In another instance, young Jennie Johnson’s story began to unfold:
“Jennie Johnson crawled to a hallway connecting her classroom to another. Then, she blacked out. Her next memory is of running, the bright light of the sun, her grandfather hugging her, pulling her close. Jennie said afterward, that she had not run outside but rather, someone had carried her – someone she had never met before.”
As the children were being sheltered, the drama inside the school continued to unfold.
David Young, hearing the explosion, rushed back into the room with a .45 pistol in one hand and a .22 in the other. He found his wife engulfed in flames, staggering around the room. He calmly raised the .45 and shot her. He then stepped out of the room, pressed the muzzle of the gun under his chin, and took his own life. In the end, although the classroom was completely destroyed and 79 people were injured, the only deaths were those of David and Doris Young.
Angels in the classroom
As soon as the children began arriving into the arms of frantic parents and waiting emergency workers, their excited stories began. Some said a “beautiful woman” had advised them to go stand near the window. The radiant apparition assured them that the crisis was almost over and they would be just fine. Some children reported seeing an angel hovering over the heads of each child in the room while many of the children later told how their personal guardian had whispered in their ear, “a disaster will happen but do not be afraid, your life will be spared”. Other children claimed that during the entire episode, a large angel stood near David and Doris Young, between the children and the bomb, with its wings spread for protection. And others still, told of a circle of angels formed around the bomb device, flashing gentle smiles as they stood facing the children, linked together holding hands.
At first, authorities dismissed their claims as the panicked ramblings of frightened children but soon, as the children’s stories began to merge and meld and evidence began to stack up in their favor, they began to realize that indeed something miraculous had just occurred in Cokeville.
To begin with, bomb experts called to the scene were baffled – how had the bomb not caused more damage? Bomb technician Rich Haskell studied bombs in the Marine Corp and had completed improvised explosives training at Redstone Arsenal near Huntsville, Alabama. He had worked with dynamite, blasting caps, fuses, and seismographic charges. Rich knew what bombs could do to buildings – and people.
“I just expected to see dead bodies every place,” he said. “But I didn’t.”
Young’s homemade bomb was contained inside an old shopping cart. It was a sophisticated bomb consisting of layers of wooden shelves with hundreds of rounds of ammunition on top, a layer of gasoline below, and tuna fish cans full of powder, resting on top of blasting caps. Young had tested an identical bomb inside an old school bus. It had worked perfectly.
Rich Haskell explained how the bomb was designed to work:
“When the blasting caps triggered, particles from the cans would go into the air, mix with the gasoline, which was on a time delay, and ignite in a fireball. The explosion would travel outward in a 360-degree circle, engulfing the room in flames.”
To their surprise, experts discovered that only one of the bomb’s five blasting caps had gone off. The wires to the other four caps were mysteriously cut. In addition, the container holding the gasoline had sprung a leak turning the volatile powder in the tuna fish cans into a paste. And the gasoline fumes had made some of the children sick. After a few threw up in trashcans, Young allowed the teachers to open a window, creating a vent that would buffer the force of the blast. According to investigators at the time, if the bomb had functioned as designed, it would have blown off the entire southwest side of the school building.
Still, an explosion of this magnitude, and the thousands of bits of flying shrapnel it had dispersed, should have killed more people but for one very important reason – the force of the blast had not radiated outward in the direction they would have expected. Analysis of the scene revealed that much of the force had been directed upward. Experts still cannot explain how or why. CNN wrote: “That every child and adult was spared in the bombing is nothing short of a miracle.”
Forensic evidence aside, the town residents began to realize that a series of “lucky” events had preceded the bombing, events that ended up saving the lives of the children who had been injured. For instance, the town was full of emergency responders who happened to be in the area working a flood that had occurred the week before. And two weeks prior to the incident, the volunteer fire department had, for the first time, practiced for how to treat the elementary school if it were to catch on fire. Their experience was honed over the next two weeks as an electrical short in the school’s alarm kept setting it off initiating a series of unplanned, but beneficial, fire drills.
But the final, conclusive explanation came as the smoke cleared from the room. Etched into the wall, just behind the blast area, was the burnt outline of a large, human-shaped figure with what looked to be wings extending from the sides of its body. The children’s “wild tales” had just been fortified with physical evidence.
Haskell related how he had been “taught certain things” but was not active in his faith. “Since that day, I have been,” said Haskell, who is now sheriff of Sweetwater County.
Years later, Jennie Johnson, the student who blacked out and was carried from the burning room, was looking through an old photo album with her grandmother. They came across a picture that she had never seen before. “That’s the lady,” she said, “She was the one that was there with me.” Her grandmother explained that she couldn’t have known her. The woman was Jennie’s Aunt Ruth, her father’s sister. She had died before Jennie was born.
As the investigation unfolded, authorities began to realize that David Young was a very sick man. In 1979, he had been the towns’ marshal for only six months and residents remember his “Wyatt Earp” style of law. He wore a pair of six-shooters on his hips. After being fired for “misconduct”, the Young’s moved to Tucson, Arizona and lived there until 1986 when they returned back to Cokeville. Investigators found 41 journals in his home including one titled, “1986 – The Year of the Biggie”.
The incident was detailed in the book When Angels Intervene to Save the Children by Hartt Wixom and his wife Judene, which formed the basis for a CBS made for TV movie titled To Save the Children. In 2006, the Cokeville Miracle Foundation compiled a book of recollections about the day from parents, emergency workers and former hostages. The story was also featured on Unsolved Mysteries, Unexplained Mysteries, and I Survived…
The Billing Gazette follows up on “Jennie”:
“Jennie grew up, graduated valedictorian of her high school class, married in the Salt Lake City temple, finished college, had three children, traveled the world, started a career in accounting, ran a marathon.”
David Young’s Manifesto
Below is the complete text of David Young’s rambling “manifesto”. Spelling and grammar errors have been left intact.
Zero equals Infinity
Seemingly, some thousands of years ago, several individuals combined, or perceived their combination and therein created Man.
This creation was, and is, a concept; a thought or idea, neither right or wrong (left) but a way among ways.
For the better part of the interim then, men played with Man making love, fire, food, mores, children, Gods, language, tools, wastes, etc: combinations of divers sorts, in almost as many directions (purposes). Now people come and people go, but always as people, no longer as individuals from which people had risen (or succumb). Almost as frequently as people come and go, additional, more distant concepts (from whatever reality is the individual/that precedes them); families, clans, tribes, villages, towns, cities, states, and civilizations make their brief passages and then leave the scene.
These various combinations of Man with teir various concepts of themselves invented war in order that any singular combination might achieve dominance over other combinations. This came to pass as Man attempts to preempt those rights of the individual. The individual remembers reality only in learned (rather than the original and innate, therefore false) responses to right (his combinations values) and wrong (other combinations values differing from his own.)
History is the study of these combinations.
As a matter of record, therefore, some 2400+ years ago, Socrates, and individual, addressed himself to an evolving concept called knowledge. Knowledge is again a way to conceive, but conception is enlarged through rules less combination specific. Philosophy, remote as ever, is slowly displaced by science (mathematics, medicine, astronomy, etc.), a disciplines observing the singular rule that a fact becomes knowledge when it can be proved.
Proof is a concept, it suggests something that “is” on account of itself – it “is” proven. At best a probability, at worse nonsense, proof in any event is very distant from reality. Nevertheless it has been the predominant concept these 2000+ years and any combination that has competed with other combinations using it has eventually either adopted it or ceased to exist.
Be this as it may, knowledge and its attendant proofs remain but a way among ways. Socrates, reputed to be the wisest man of his time, investigated the basis of knowledge in a manner still available (Plato wrote it down and it survives), still as viable, and still as conclusive as it was 2400+ years ago. Socrates concluded, just as we must, “As for me, all I know is that I know nothing.”
Nothing? This knowledge of ‘nothing’ then is all we have for all the lessons of history, these 2400+ years, Christ, revolutions, insurance, relativity, moon and space probes, cruesades and inquisitions, Shakespeare, Newton, medical science, hydrogen, fusion, metalurgy, Hitler, electricity, government and law, etc.?
The answer to this concern regarding the nothingness of knowledge is rather yes and no. The Knowledge of Nothing is all there is (to know), but 99.9% of us don’t even know that. Mostly, as in all these several thousands of years, we believe (another concept!) we know that 2 plus 2 equals 4 or that a line perpendicular from the ground is up, or that Christ is good (bad or indifferent), or that our names or ages are such and such.
That our belief that the moon is something we can put men on, or that a certain creed offers a unique conclusion, or that E+MC@ is not one whit more true than a New Guinean tribes concepts and rationales that have preserved its stone age culture into our world, leave the majority of us feeling wronged. Therefore, rather than learn the reality and limitations of knowledge, we refute truth with some age old axiom (bullets conquer stone axes), note the bobbing heads of surrounding bigots (99.9% of everyone) and return without doubt or question to selfish, self-centered, egotistical sub systems and social specific cultures fromwhich we otherwise might free ourselves.
Were we to continue, however, the invextigation of knowledge, we’d need to internalize Socrates’; All I know is that I know nothing.
0=[infinity], Zero (or Nothing) Equals the Infinite. TRUTH!
How is this to be? Believing 2 plus 2 equals 4 hardly invalidates Knowing 0=[infinity]. The diabolical trick we’ve otherwise learned (internalizesd) is realitivity; when in Rome do as the Romans, when doing math do as the mathematicians, when fighting a thermonuclear war, discard spears and arrows for the thermonuclear devises, etc. While 2 plus 2 equals 4 (and there would have been no men put on the moon if it hadn’t) it might just as well equal 22 or many (‘primitive’ tribes frequently respond thus to any mathematical concept above 3) or various other concepts that are easier to ignore than to realize, know, and internalize. But would we internalize these various concepts, we realize the relativeness of these various formulas, that knowledge is indeed relative, therefore untrue, therefore unknowledge, certainly nothing less than falsehood.
That0=[infinity] is TRUE, REALITY, and a symbolic manner of prphrasing Socrates’ conclusion regarding the limits of knowledg is another matter. Here we confront what we thought we pursued all these years, what we should have remembered from 2400 years ago. The imortal Greek told us, showed us, and taught us the limitations of knowledge and we killd him for it, not merely one individual once, but in all this nonsense we’ve engaged in since. Still, in 2400 years, 24,000 years, or 240,000 eons, there is truth-relativity and TRUTH. Let’s cease being beasts and begin to be Gods!
As was suggested at the beginning of this writting, Man is an invention, he is lots of individuals. Rather or not individuals ultimately exist (and what we mean by asking that question) is matter for another writting, it will presently suffice to remember that we still singularly (individually) conceive and perceive in the ever-present. Aware of the relativity of the games we play in our various existances, we will allow our individual trajectories (precepts and concepts) their original and innate freedom to achieve their own accords (determine their own natures ) without the hindrances of Man, families, clans, villages, towns, cities, states, or civilizations. Responsible, as ever (we die our own death, remember?) for our own actions (no Man, family clan, village, town, city, state, government, or religion condoning withholding the above noted original and innate freedoms) we will collectively evolve into the next step of wherever it is we’re going (Nowhere in the REALITY of 0-[infinity] but still a long way from achieving it.).
We are all ONE and ‘we’ came apart to do ‘this’ for something ‘to do’ in Nothing and Infinity.”
David G. Young 4/th Wct. 1978 Tucson, Arizona