25 years after school bombing, Wyoming town remembers story of survival

2011-05-16T11:25:00Z 2011-05-16T23:46:08Z 25 years after school bombing, Wyoming town remembers story of survival

Casper Star-Tribune

The Billings Gazette
May 16, 2011 11:25 am  • 

COKEVILLE, Wyo. — Twenty-five years ago on Monday, a man and his wife pushed a homemade gasoline bomb into Cokeville’s sole elementary school and demanded $300 million in ransom.

David Young said he was a revolutionist and was taking the children with him to a “brave new world.”

A former Cokeville marshal, Young chose the town of 500 because its students were smart, among the top in the state. He thought the community that loved its children, with strong roots in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, would listen to his demands.

But, with the students gathered in one room, Young’s wife, Doris, pulled the clothespin trigger, detonating the bomb accidentally. Young shot and killed his wife, then himself.

All the children and teachers lived.

A former LDS church bishop said, “Everybody I talked to said there had to be divine intervention that day.”

May 16, 1986

It was just after 1:30 p.m. when David and Doris Young, pushing a shopping cart, entered the school.

The fifth-graders waited in the music room for their band teacher. Lori Nate, then 11, remembers that the teacher had gone to fetch a TV and VCR so they could watch a concert from the night before.

A woman entered the room and told the students to follow her. She led them to one of the first-grade classrooms, where most of the student body was already waiting.

No one could leave the room, students remember David Young saying, or he would shoot. Young instructed the teachers to remove tables and chairs and tape a square on the floor around his homemade bomb.

Teachers called it the “magic square” and told their students not to touch it. They tried to keep the kids calm and occupied. Some of the students watched “Transformers” on a TV and sang “Happy Birthday.”

With the explosion of his bomb, David Young planned to take the children, money and important possessions with him, reincarnated in a place where he would serve as ruler.

First-grader Jennie Johnson wondered about this “new world” about which the man talked. Why would someone want to take her away from her family? Would she see her mom and dad there?

Kliss Sparks had been reading “Tom Sawyer” to her fourth-graders in the warm sun when Young’s wife corralled them into the classroom with a gun.

“The kids were sitting in circles, and, as I looked over at them, you could see one of the circles would be saying a prayer,” Sparks said. “And they were all doing that. It was amazing to me.”

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A teenage girl ran into Town Hall, shouting that her father had pushed a bomb into the elementary school. Emergency management coordinator Kathy Davison told the town clerk to call dispatchers.

Lynette Nate was setting up volleyball nets for a tournament when her neighbor screeched up to the high school and told her what was happening. In Cokeville, the workforce consisted of ranchers, government workers and entrepreneurs. If the hostage takers wanted ransom, they’d have to go elsewhere, Lynette thought.

Outside the school, facts were scarce, rumors rampant. Someone told Lynette that one of her sons might be handcuffed inside David Young’s van. It wasn’t true, but she was left guessing.

Lynette climbed inside her car with her 5-year-old, Katie, to be alone. Three of her children were in the school — Brian, Kevin and Lori. Her children had been baptized. They attended church every Sunday. Lynette believed God was in charge.

“And I remember saying to (God) that, if he needed my children that day, it was OK,” she said. “We really needed them, we loved them, they were vital to our family. But, if he needed them more, it was OK.”

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First-grader Fawna Kuntzelman heard nothing. She saw a giant orange mushroom cloud and tried to move. Someone in front of her wouldn’t budge, and Fawna pushed.

Third-grader Jamie King looked up and saw Doris Young on fire. She turned toward the corner, pulled her arms to her face and curled up. The carpet on the wall ignited, burning her right arm. Someone grabbed her and threw her out the window.

Lori Nate was thrown back against the wall. In the darkness, she heard someone speak and caught her bearings. She crawled for the door, afraid that someone would start shooting.

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.

Outside, Lynette Nate hardly recognized her children running up the street, faces blackened.

“I will never forget that reunion on Main Street,” she said. “I don’t think it’ll be any sweeter when we meet again on the other side than it was on Main Street, to have all three of my children when I thought, perhaps, we would have no children in our community. And there they were.”

‘A miracle’

Right away, the word “miracle” appeared. It was spoken nationally on CNN and printed in the Casper Star-Tribune: “That every child and adult was spared in the bombing 10 days ago is nothing short of a miracle.”

People said it was a miracle, too, that emergency responders happened to be in town that day because of flooding, that recent fire drills prepared students to exit quickly, that the volunteer fire department had practiced a week before on how to treat the elementary school should it catch fire.

Some of the children talked of angels.

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.

Through weekly counseling, Jennie started talking about the bombing. It was hard at first, but she went through the details of what happened, over and over. She kept saying someone had carried her. Not a teacher, not anyone she knew.

Jennie and her grandma were looking through photo albums one day several years later. Jennie pointed to a woman she had never known, in a photo she had never seen.

“That’s the lady,” she said then. “She was the one that was there with me.”

Her grandma, Shirley Toomer, explained that Jennie couldn’t have known her. The woman was Shirley’s aunt Ruth, her father’s sister. She died before Jennie was born.

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Bomb technician Rich Haskell studied bombs in the Marine Corps and Army National Guard. When he joined the Sweetwater County Sheriff’s Department as a deputy in the late 1970s, his sheriff sent him for improvised explosives training at Redstone Arsenal near Hunstville, Ala.

He had seen dynamite and blasting caps and fuses and seismographic charges. He knew what bombs could do to a building, to people.

“I just expected to see dead bodies every place,” he said. “But I didn’t.”

Young’s homemade bomb was contained in a two-wheeled shopping cart, wooden shelves separating the materials inside: ammunition on top, a 1-gallon plastic jug of gasoline in the middle, tuna fish cans filled with powder chemicals and blasting caps below.

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, Haskell said. The explosion would travel outward in a 360-degree circle, mushrooming upward first, crawling across the ceiling and down the walls, engulfing the room in flames.

Investigators discovered that Young tested a duplicate bomb earlier inside a school bus in Arizona. It worked perfectly.

In the classroom in Cokeville, the bomb’s plastic jug leaked gasoline, which dripped into the cans and turned powder chemicals to paste. Gasoline fumes made some of the children sick, so teachers opened a window, creating a vent.

But he couldn’t explain why the blast had traveled mostly upward. Or why the blasting cap wires had been cut clear through.

“We looked all over that thing to try to see what cut it or what it did,” Haskell said. “There was nothing there that we could see that would cut that. ... To this day I cannot explain why they looked like they were cut.”

Haskell had been taught to believe certain things, but he wasn’t active in his faith.

“Since that day, I have been,” said Haskell, now sheriff of Sweetwater County.

Years later, an investigator on the case told him that some of the children claimed that, right before the explosion, angels encircled it and held hands.

“When you stop and think about somebody that’s enclosing this explosive, it would make it go straight up,” he said. “... You’ll never convince me they weren’t there.”

Healing

Seventy-nine children were hospitalized for smoke inhalation and burns. Fawna Kuntzelman spent two months in a Salt Lake City burn unit, enduring skin-grafting surgeries, her right side burned from the waist up.

School officials got their building back from the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms on the Saturday night after the bombing. They opened the school that Sunday and for the rest of the summer, so students and their families could see the blackened room.

Nohl Sandall, psychologist for Lincoln County School District 2, led a team of counselors in Cokeville after the bombing. They held a town meeting at the high school gym and talked about what parents might expect: sleep disturbance, intrusive recollections, being reminded of the event by certain items, sounds or smells.

Reporters were everywhere: at the hospital, at the school, at homes. There was a made-for-TV movie. “Unsolved Mysteries” re-enacted the bombing in an episode.

Lynette Nate learned to forgive. She didn’t have time to hate David Young. Her first-grader was in the backyard pretending to take the preschool children hostage. Her 12-year-old was out to prove nothing could kill him since a bomb hadn’t. Her daughter Lori retreated inside herself.

For many, it took years to heal fears and insecurities. The process continues today.

Lori Nate, now Lori Conger, got to a point where she could talk about the bombing without triggering nightmares. She doesn’t discuss it as much as she once did, but she tells her children.

“I want them to know,” she said. “I just want them to understand the miracles of that day and how blessed we were.”

Lynette Nate thinks of all that could be missing, of her grandchildren. By the end of the year, she’ll have 20.

“Eleven would not be here had their parents — their dad or their mom — been killed that day,” Lynette said. “And I just can’t imagine our family without the three children that were restored.”

To have faith

When her eldest child entered first grade, Jennie Johnson struggled sending her to school. Her daughter was now the same age that Jennie had been when a man brought a bomb into her classroom. When her second child entered first grade, it felt easier. And, when her third was born, just around the 20th anniversary, Jennie worried less.

But she tells her children about the explosion and her aunt Ruth.

She believes she was saved for a purpose. 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.

She survived hardship, too, among them the death of her father at age 41 and her younger brother just two years ago.

Jennie’s children have asked her if they’ll see their uncle again some day.

“I don’t know, sweetheart. I don’t know what happens,” Jennie tells them. “I just know that they’re close.”

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