The Miracle of Cokeville

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Speaker 1: Hey, this is Josh Levine, the host of One Year. We’ve got two more episodes left in our season on 1986. This week, we’re turning things back over to senior producer Evan Chung. One note before we get started. This episode contains descriptions of school violence that may be disturbing.

Speaker 2: The morning of May 16th, 1986, Cynthia Triplett was on the road to a job interview. It was for a teaching position at a grade school in Afton, Wyoming. 600 miles from home.

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Speaker 3: It was a long drive. I was tired. So I interviewed in Afton, and when the interview was over, the superintendent said, We need you to go down to Cokeville. There’s possibly another opening there. They said, you know, go down this road and you can’t miss it. Okay, I’ll go to a different school.

Speaker 2: Cokeville was a small town another hour away. She got there sometime after 1:00 in the afternoon.

Speaker 3: And I pulled into the parking lot and I pulled up close to a van, a white van, and there was a guy and a gal there wearing flannel shirts. And so I just assumed it was the janitors because they were unloading something out of the van. And so. I got out of my car and went into the building.

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Speaker 2: She walked up to the reception desk where the school secretary was sitting.

Speaker 3: And so I looked at her and I said, I’m here for a job interview and I need to use the restroom before I have the interview. And she said, okay. And she pointed to where the restroom was. And at that point, the guy had come in the door, the janitor. And, you know, I kind of smelled gas, but I thought, Oh, he must be working on something. You know, maybe he’s a mechanic.

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Speaker 2: Cynthia headed over to the bathroom when she came out. The man was talking with the secretary.

Speaker 3: And I come and I stand right next to him. And he had pulled out what I thought was a tool from what I thought was a tool belt. And he was pointing it at my head and being 24 and having a smart mouth, I said, Hmm, new job interview technique. And then I look at the secretary waiting for her to start laughing, you know, like, this is all just a big Kiki. Ha ha. And she was just ghost white, like, literally just pasty white in her eyes. Just got huge. It was like her whole her body didn’t even move. Her eyes were just moving, like she was just frozen stiff. At that point, I realized that’s not a tool belt. It’s not a tool that is a gun. And then he said to me, You’ve just walked into the middle of a revolution.

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Speaker 2: May 16th, 1986, at the Cokeville Elementary School, had the potential to be an unimaginable tragedy. The worst school attack in American history. More than 150 kids and teachers held hostage crammed into a single room along with the homemade bomb. A bomb that exploded. But I want to tell you right now that this is not a story about children dying. It’s a story about how they didn’t. And for the past 36 years, the survivors have been grappling with why they were spared and whether something else happened in that room, something supernatural.

Speaker 4: I don’t know how they got out alive.

Speaker 5: Couple of things go his way. We’re talking about a different story.

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Speaker 6: I know that we were saved. We were not alone in that classroom.

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Speaker 2: This is one year, 1986. The miracle of Cokeville.

Speaker 7: I knew my dad was different. I knew he was different. He was very, very, very intelligent.

Speaker 2: This is Princess Young. Her dad was the man who Cynthia Triplett thought was the school janitor. His name was David Young. And he wanted to control everything in his daughter’s life, even what she called her friends.

Speaker 7: If I called somebody by a nickname, he’d make me write their name 500 times the correct way, because I’m never to give him a nickname. I was always trying to be a good daughter, but I always felt like I wasn’t good enough.

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Speaker 2: There were times when her father would let loose. He loved to pack everyone into the family Subaru and hit the open road.

Speaker 7: He’d get us out of school early on a Friday and we drive to California, we drive to Colorado, or he’d plug in a cassette tape north to Alaska. And guess where we were going? We’re going to Alaska. Go to Alaska. My sister and I, in the backseat with all the seats down and all our blankets down and sleeping with our feet up by the front of the seats because we’re both tall. They were some fun times, no doubt about it.

Speaker 2: As Princess got older, those fun times became less frequent. There was a lot of screaming in the house, and when she was in middle school, her parents got divorced. Her father also was beaten up in a park and later got into a bad motorcycle accident. Princess thinks he suffered brain trauma.

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Speaker 7: A switch went off in his head and. Things just started getting really weird.

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Speaker 2: The summer after she turned 11, Princess lived with her dad in a small town in Wyoming. Cokeville. David Young had just moved there to work as a cop. His title was Town Marshal, and he would dress the part.

Speaker 7: Always a bolo tie and his cowboy hat. You know, he always had his holster on that wrapped around his leg just like Western days, you know, the sheriff type thing.

Speaker 2: Some Cokeville residents said he took that old West persona too far, that he would go around town flashing his six shooter. They gave him the nickname Wyatt Earp.

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Speaker 7: And next thing you know, he was gone. They found a way to get rid of him. That’s why we left Cokeville.

Speaker 2: David Young stint as marshal of Cokeville lasted only six months before he left. He married a woman from town. Her name was Doris. Though Princess always knew her as Dawsey.

Speaker 7: We had our differences, but she taught me a lot of wonderful things.

Speaker 2: Did you come to view her as a mom in time?

Speaker 7: I did. She was a beautiful person.

Speaker 2: In the decade that followed, they bounced around the western U.S.. By 1986, David Dorsey and Princess had settled in Arizona.

Speaker 7: Living at a little rental property in a little doublewide trailer in Tucson.

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Speaker 2: Princess was 19 then. She was going to community college and waiting tables to help pay the rent. David Young was no longer working. He seemed to always be absorbed in projects, but he never shared what they were.

Speaker 7: He was kind of a chemist, always doing research. He was collecting tuna cans and we didn’t know what he was doing with them. I mean, what do you need an old tuna can from? And he just kept talking about the biggie.

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Speaker 2: The biggie was some major project that David claimed was in the works. He’d occasionally promise it was coming soon. Without further explanation.

Speaker 7: He’s like, It’s going to be big. It’s going to be Biggie. You know, he was just so vague about it. You know, he’s acting like we’re going to be rich.

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Speaker 2: I mean, did you take it very seriously, this plan or. It just seemed low.

Speaker 7: And I was like, well, when is that Biggie going to happen? Because we’ve got $120 to our name for the whole month, you know, that kind of thing. Like, hello, bring in some more income.

Speaker 2: Princess Anne, her dad didn’t do a lot of talking when she found out by that point that he wasn’t her biological father. But that didn’t make her stop trying to get close to him.

Speaker 7: I was always searching for that connection. Didn’t know quite why. I mean, he was controlling. I was in fear of him all the time. Always in fear of something.

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Speaker 2: Still, Princess craved his approval. She remembered how much fun they’d had taking road trips. In May 1986, they were going to go on another one. Their final destination would be Cokeville, Wyoming. David Young promised his daughter it would be a special occasion.

Speaker 7: He kept talking about he was going to announce the biggie when he got there.

Speaker 2: Princess and her family picked a good time to visit Cokeville.

Speaker 5: Me and Cokeville. Wyoming is absolutely gorgeous. That’s when the flowers are starting to bloom. Just perfect.

Speaker 2: That’s Jay Metcalf. He grew up on a dairy ranch a few miles outside of town. He was in first grade in 1986. His older sister, Jamie, was a fourth grader.

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Speaker 7: We just roam everywhere on this huge ranch and ride horses and, you know, just play and be free.

Speaker 2: Cokeville is set in a couple of valleys surrounded by mountains. It’s near the southwest corner of Wyoming, not far from the borders of Idaho and Utah. In 1986, the town’s population was about 500.

Speaker 6: It was absolutely the type of place that you knew everyone’s name.

Speaker 2: Jenny Johnson was seven years old in 1986.

Speaker 6: You knew when people were visiting from out of town and what their names were. You knew everything that was going on in the town.

Speaker 2: The vast majority of Cokeville residents also share a faith. About 80% of them are Mormons, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints.

Speaker 7: So it was, you know, church on Sunday activities during the week. I would say a very religious community.

Speaker 2: The church is in Cokeville small downtown area. Just down the road is the elementary school, which in 1986 was practically brand new.

Speaker 8: We were just thrilled to have this new building.

Speaker 2: Jean Mitchell taught first grade at Cokeville Elementary.

Speaker 8: It was a teacher’s dream. Everything. Everything was just done right.

Speaker 2: Mrs. Mitchell’s classroom had bright orange cabinets and its own child sized bathroom. Jane Metcalf and Jennie Johnson were both in her class that year.

Speaker 5: Mrs. Mitchell. She was a gregarious person.

Speaker 6: Absolutely amazing teacher. I remember loving to go to first grade every single day of the whole year.

Speaker 8: These children wanted to learn. They wanted to be good for you. You know, it was great to teach there.

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Speaker 2: For Mrs. Mitchell, school was a family affair. Her husband, Jack Mitchell, taught the sixth graders.

Speaker 1: All classes except for the music in P.E. and art. Wonderful teaching community. Wonderful.

Speaker 2: And the Mitchell’s youngest son was in third grade in the classroom right next door to Gene’s. But the Mitchell’s connection to the school wasn’t unusual. It seemed hard to find a family without a kid enrolled at Cokeville Elementary.

Speaker 1: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Everybody had a grandchild or nephew. Niece, whatever. In that school? Yeah, for sure.

Speaker 2: In May 1986, the school was brimming with excitement. It was almost time for summer vacation.

Speaker 7: No homework, no more testing.

Speaker 5: You know, now it was time for the fun stuff.

Speaker 8: Kids were buzzed. I was buzzed. It was the end of the school year. The.

Speaker 2: Princess Young and her father, David, headed up to Cokeville in separate cars. Princess drove with her stepmother, Dorsey, who still had a daughter and grandchildren in Cokeville. David came up the next day in a rented Toyota van, and he wasn’t alone. Princess was surprised to see that he’d invited three men to join them. She doesn’t think she’d ever seen them before.

Speaker 7: I don’t believe so. If I had, I don’t remember it.

Speaker 2: Did you know why he was explained? Why they were there?

Speaker 7: They invested, giving him money to be a part of his biggie.

Speaker 2: These three men didn’t know what the biggie was either. But David had won them over with his promises of quick riches.

Speaker 7: So many people believed in him because he was so intelligent. You just believed that he was going to do something great.

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Speaker 2: David still wasn’t ready to reveal his great plan. He said he had more preparations to make just across the border in Idaho, and he asked Princess to come with him that night in their motel room. She noticed her dad spending a long time tinkering with something in the bathroom.

Speaker 7: And then I went to the bathroom. There was some weird stuff in the tub. A bag of flour. The tin cans that he’d been saving from tuna. They were in there. String, couple clothespins. And I’m like, Well, what is this? And he wouldn’t say. He just said, I’m making some stuff. And. It got ugly.

Speaker 7: Then he drops a bombshell on me that if I was to be part of the biggie, I had to sleep with him. And I said, fathers don’t do that to their daughters. So the rest of the night was. Me locking myself in the bathroom for a long time until he let me come out and said, Don’t try anything. I’ve got a gun under my pillow. But from that point on, he was watching me like I was going to run.

Speaker 2: May 16th, 1986 was a Friday.

Speaker 6: It was a nice spring day. And I got on the bus and went to school and I was just ready for May 16th.

Speaker 2: Jenny’s first grade teacher, Mrs. Mitchell, had a full day of activities planned.

Speaker 8: We were all just terribly excited. Couldn’t wait for the afternoon. Just started off normal. It didn’t take long for it not to be normal.

Speaker 2: That morning, Princess Kyung was on the road again, heading to a secluded meeting point deep in the mountains. It was Princess Dorsey, David and two of David’s investor friends. The third one had gotten tired of David’s caging us and gone home. The five of them that were still there climbed inside the van. It was finally time for David to reveal the biggie.

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Speaker 7: And he tells us what he’s going to do. That he was going to take hostage the Cokeville Elementary School. We were all like mouths dropped open, like, what the hell is going on right now? All of us did not want anything to do with it. Even Dorsey.

Speaker 2: Dorsey did agree to go along with her husband. Why she did that is highly disputed. Princess believes that her stepmother wanted to keep the situation under control.

Speaker 7: And she felt like, well, I can go in there and keep the children calm to not agitate him, because he was starting to be very agitated.

Speaker 2: When David’s investors told him they didn’t want to be involved. He handcuffed them to the back seat of the van.

Speaker 7: And he said, Oh, don’t you know, don’t think you’re going to run. I will bury you up here because we were in the middle of nowhere up there. He would various. And nobody would ever find us.

Speaker 2: David climbed into the front seat in between Dorsey and Princess, and he told Dorsey to drive. They pulled into the parking lot of the school in the early afternoon. That’s when Princess says he made her an offer.

Speaker 7: He told me I needed to unload the van. The two guys were in the back seat and he would let us go if I complied.

Speaker 2: So she began taking stuff to the school side entrance. They brought in a milk jug filled with gasoline. All that stuff she’d seen in the bathtub and a whole lot of guns.

Speaker 7: And then I saw all these little children’s faces running back and forth in a hallway. And I’m like, How can I grab these children? How can I save them? How can I? But of course, I was trembling so bad and I dropped a couple guns. And that’s when he put a gun to my head, a revolver, and told me. To get my shit under control or something.

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Speaker 2: David and Dorsey headed into the building. That’s when he crossed paths with Cynthia triplett, the woman who had driven 600 miles for a job interview. A few minutes after she walked into Cokeville Elementary School. Cynthia had a gun to her head.

Speaker 3: And then he said, Get in this room. And of course, at this point, you don’t have any idea what this was about. So I looked around the room and there was a window. I thought, I’m not staying. I’m going around really fast. I get to wherever the trees are. So I’m checking my sandals off and I’m headed to the window and I’m going to get the window open. And at that point, Doris Young is standing at the door with her gun and she said, Don’t do that. At which point I just put my hands up and said, Oh, okay. And I backed away from the window.

Speaker 2: When Princess finished unloading the van, she went to find her father.

Speaker 7: And he reached in his pocket and he tossed me the keys and said, You’ve been a good kid. And I want to I just. I still to this day. Is that all you have for me? I’ve been a good kid. I grabbed the keys and I jumped in the van and I almost wrecked just getting it out of the parking lot off the curb. We were on two wheels for a minute.

Speaker 2: She barreled away down Main Street with the two investors still handcuffed in the back. Then burst into Cokeville town hall just down the road.

Speaker 7: And I started screaming that I needed help. We need. We need big help. And nobody wanted to listen to me. I used some very harsh curse words. And they’re like, Well, young lady, we don’t talk like that around here. And I’m like, He’s going to hurt all your children. He’s going to hurt your kids. All of a sudden, people started listening.

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Speaker 2: Jenny Johnson and Jane Metcalf were gathered with their classmates in Jean Mitchell’s first grade room, getting ready to hear a story.

Speaker 6: And we were going to get together and read Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

Speaker 5: I don’t remember what part of the three bear story we were at, but that’s when he came in.

Speaker 2: David Young entered Mrs. Mitchell’s classroom along with the school secretary.

Speaker 8: I thought, What is she doing bringing this drunk into my classroom? Because he was disheveled. And he said something to the effect of, I’m holding you hostage. And I said, You got to be kidding. And he says, No, sit down and shut up.

Speaker 2: Mrs. Mitchell’s husband, Jack, was just bringing his sixth grade class back in from recess.

Speaker 1: And I saw this lady coming down the hallway from the lunchroom that I didn’t recognize. And she said something like, We have something special going on in the first grade room.

Speaker 2: Doris was popping into every class with a friendly invitation to come to Mrs. Mitchell’s room. They all began filing down the hallway, past the bulletin board the kids had made in tribute to Christa McAuliffe, the teacher who died on the space shuttle Challenger in January.

Speaker 6: Everybody in the whole school started coming into my classroom and I thought, Wow, this is going to be quite the story. We’re going to read it to the whole school.

Speaker 8: And the next thing I know, in walks my son’s classroom.

Speaker 6: They just kept filing in, filing in.

Speaker 1: And I saw Jean and my youngest son setting back on the wall. And, look, when I saw her, you know, she gave me that look. I knew something was out of the ordinary.

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Speaker 2: Eventually, the entire school was in Mrs. Mitchell’s classroom, 136 kids plus 18 adults, teachers, staff. Cynthia, the job applicant, a mother who was dropping off her child and a UPS driver, David Young, sat on top of one of the kid’s little desks next to him. He had a small cart filled with items from the van.

Speaker 1: And I could see the milk bottles on top. And I could see the wires. I could smell the gasoline.

Speaker 3: And it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out he had a bomb.

Speaker 2: The wires were connected to a clothespin, and the clothespin was connected to a shoelace that David had put around his wrist.

Speaker 1: What he had was a dead man’s switch.

Speaker 2: If David made a sudden move, or if he was attacked or killed, the shoelace would get yanked, triggering the explosion.

Speaker 3: And, you know, up to this point, I’m still holding on to that little tiny bit of hope that this guy is drunk or on drugs and he’s going to sober up and we’ll have, you know, we might have a prayer getting out of this. Emily handed out his manifesto.

Speaker 8: And if you could make sense of it, I don’t even want to know you. I read maybe the first few lines and I thought, wow.

Speaker 1: Oh, it’s just gobbledygook. It was something like Infinity equals whatever or whatever, whatever. Just stupid.

Speaker 3: And at that point is when the terror struck, because I thought, we’re going to get put in this room and we’re not getting out. When you have terror and you read about it in the books and they talk about your blood runs cold, that isn’t make believe that that is what happens you become ice cold.

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Speaker 2: Once everyone was in the classroom. David Young told the school’s principal he wanted a ransom of $2 million per child today. That would add up to more than $800 million.

Speaker 1: And he said this is a revolution and I’m prepared to stay here for two weeks. When I said we can’t be here that long, we’ll be out of here 3 hours. And he pointed his gun at me. He says, I’ll kill you right now. You go sit down and shut up. And I did. So I never did talk to him after that at all.

Speaker 2: Before the principal left to call the authorities. Fourth grader Jamie Connor remembers him calmly explaining the situation.

Speaker 7: He told us that this man was holding us hostage and that we weren’t going to be able to leave the school and that he had a bomb and that we had to be very good.

Speaker 2: Do you understand what that actually meant?

Speaker 7: No, I didn’t. It just seemed crazy. You know, I just thought. Hostage? Well.

Speaker 2: You know, what is.

Speaker 7: What is he talking about?

Speaker 5: To be honest with you, I have no idea what was going on, but I knew it wasn’t anything up.

Speaker 2: David Young didn’t do much talking himself. His wife, Doris, was a lot more chatty.

Speaker 7: We asked her, Well, how long are we going to be in here? And she said, as long as it takes. And we said, Well, how are we going to brush our teeth? And she said, Well, I have I have a toothbrush in my purse. We could pass it around.

Speaker 6: I remember her being joyful, being nice to the kids. One of my classmates, it was his birthday. And she actually led the happy birthday song.

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Speaker 2: That she seemed genuinely nice.

Speaker 6: She did?

Speaker 8: No, no. She knew what was going on. I disliked her more than I did him because she was busy buttering up the kids. And these children just followed her.

Speaker 2: Meanwhile, the principal was in his office calling local law enforcement. To his surprise, they already knew what was going on at the school, thanks to Princess Young. She was at the town hall.

Speaker 7: They were asking me questions about his, what his thoughts were and everything. I’m like, I don’t know. He’s a crazy lunatic. He has lost his ever loved mind. You’re going to have to take him out. I mean, he was the dad that raised me. But at this point. You got to save the other people.

Speaker 2: Very soon, emergency vehicles were gathering outside the building. The students inside the school didn’t know that. They were just trying to find space for themselves. In the cramped classroom.

Speaker 5: With 150 of us there, we were kind of crowd noone on each other and he probably felt that we were crowding in on him. And that’s where this whole magic square came from.

Speaker 1: He talked the doors nor stopped me, and she said that he’s afraid some kids are going to bump him. Hit that string and kaboom. And I went to the supply room and got some masking tape and made about a ten foot by ten foot square in the middle of the floor.

Speaker 2: David moved into the center of the square with the bomb in the cart alongside him. Then Mr. Mitchell got the kids attention.

Speaker 1: They quieted down and I said, Okay, boys and girls, this is the magic square. Nobody to go inside this magic square. You can be outside of it, but nobody’s going to be inside of it.

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Speaker 7: We’re going to play a game. If we cross over, you’re out. We’re like, Well, what does that mean? What does out mean? I don’t want to find out what it means.

Speaker 2: By this point, Cynthia Triplett was sure that she was going to die.

Speaker 3: I just started praying. Don’t let it hurt. And I’m I’m literally praying that. And and then and this is the part, you know, I tell people and no one ever keeps this part in the interview because they think it’s, you know, wacky stuff. But I heard a boy say it’s going to be okay. Everything’s going to be okay.

Speaker 2: With David Young looming over them, the teachers at Cokeville Elementary faced an enormous challenge. They knew everyone’s safety depended on how they managed that crowded classroom.

Speaker 1: You know this many kids in a confined space. They were wearing thin.

Speaker 8: You know, these are my kids. I can’t let anything happen to you.

Speaker 2: Mr. and Mrs. Mitchell took action. The teachers gathered whatever they could to keep the 136 children occupied. Coloring sheets. Crayons. A TV. Books from the library.

Speaker 5: And there was kind of a big push for, you know, almost like a scrum, you know, to go and get that those supplies.

Speaker 2: Seven year old Jane Metcalf was one of the last kids to get there.

Speaker 5: I was at the back of the group and ended up getting pushed and I remember stepping on that stupid magic circle. I was probably only on it for, you know, a split second. But that split second almost seemed like the last forever, hoping that he didn’t notice me.

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Speaker 2: David Young siege had lasted for hours now. The clock was ticking past three. It was almost time for the end of the school day. And the kids could feel it.

Speaker 6: You know, in my little brain, it felt like we were there for days. I felt like I was stripped away from my parents. And I was ever coming home.

Speaker 2: The kids weren’t just getting restless. They were getting sick. The fumes from the jug of gasoline were permeating the packed room.

Speaker 7: The smell just became nauseatingly strong.

Speaker 6: My friends were throwing up. I remember feeling like I was going to throw up.

Speaker 2: The teachers got permission from David Young to open the windows and doors. Jean Mitchell noticed that he wasn’t looking well himself. He was sweating profusely, and she asked Doris about it.

Speaker 8: She said, he’s a diabetic. And I said, Oh.

Speaker 2: The Mitchells had a son with diabetes. And she knew from experience this was not a good sign.

Speaker 8: Yes. Because they just aren’t themselves when they have insulin reactions that. And yes, that scared me when I knew that because I knew this man. Besides me nuts is not in control of himself.

Speaker 2: David needed to use the bathroom. He slowly removed the shoelace from his arm. The dead man’s switch. And he attached it to Doris’s wrist instead. Then he left the magic square and went inside the tiny bathroom attached to the classroom. It was just before 3:40 p.m..

Speaker 2: Jamie Conner was sitting near a corner of the Magic Square with her sister Joanna and her brother Jay.

Speaker 7: We told Jay, stay here in color. We’re just going to go see if we’re on the news. And Joanna and I both went over to the TV.

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Speaker 5: I was coloring this picture of a panther climbing down the mountainside. I was a big fan of the cartoon He-Man, so I probably colored the Panther Purple because I was Skeletor’s Panther’s color. I’m just sitting there coloring that little panther coming down the mountain. I turned around, look towards where the bomb was.

Speaker 2: The bomb was on the cart attached to Doris. Jean Mitchell turned to speak with her.

Speaker 8: And she had that shoestring on her hand. And and I put my hands up to my ear and I said, I’ve got a headache. She says, Me, too. And she put her hands up to her head. And that was the end of it.

Speaker 1: Boom. That’s what I heard.

Speaker 7: Just an enormous sound.

Speaker 6: And the heat. I fell on my back.

Speaker 7: Just intense heat.

Speaker 6: I will always remember that force.

Speaker 7: And there was this ball of fire in the middle of the room. And I saw Doris. She was engulfed in flames, and she was running. And then the room just went black.

Speaker 1: The smoke was instantaneous.

Speaker 3: It just was like this big poof.

Speaker 1: To the ceiling, completely black.

Speaker 7: It seemed like it was nighttime.

Speaker 1: And then all hell broke loose.

Speaker 7: Everybody started to scream.

Speaker 8: This is one of the strangest things that I’ve tried to work out, but I don’t remember anything. I didn’t see the black smoke. I don’t remember a sound. I don’t remember anything.

Speaker 5: I must have blacked out or something because I you know, for a good couple of seconds, I have no recollection of what happened at all.

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Speaker 7: J The fire just went right up his arm and caught his arm and his back and his hair on fire.

Speaker 5: Our fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Sparks, she ran over to me and patted out the fire. You know, that was on my back with her hands.

Speaker 7: And then I kind of looked to my right and I looked to my left, and my sister was no longer next to me. That’s when the terror came. And then I saw the windows. One of the teachers was yelling, Get out, get out, get out.

Speaker 3: And the older kids were throwing the younger kids out of the way to get out because you couldn’t breathe.

Speaker 7: And there was a teacher just picking up kids and shoving them into the window, just shove.

Speaker 3: I literally would pick them up and I would throw them, you know, and they would use my right leg as a launch pad. Oh, my leg was black.

Speaker 7: So I remember just sticking my arms out and he just pulled me and I had scrapes and just up and down my whole torso from just getting yanked out the window. But I landed on my feet and he kind of lifted me up and said, Run! And I ran.

Speaker 5: The first thing I remember is our sixth grade teacher, Mr. Jack Mitchell, got up by the front door.

Speaker 1: And I was grabbing kids and actually throwing them down the hall, grabbing them as they came by and throwing them. And I was yelling, Get down, get down, get out.

Speaker 5: There and get out, get down and get out. So that’s what I did. You know, I ran as fast as I could out into the daylight.

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Speaker 3: I stood at the window because I knew there was a couple of kids still in the room screaming, Come to the light, come to the light, come to my voice.

Speaker 6: I can’t see anything and I don’t know where I am and I need to get out. And then I remember hearing a voice calling my name, and I remember looking and seeing a lady who I thought was a teacher. And she says, You have to run. You have to get out. And I remember following her out through the doorway and she said, You run into the hall and run out the door. And as I was running, I could hear bullets going off.

Speaker 1: I could hear these pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop. And I thought, to be honest with you, that pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, I thought he was shooting kids.

Speaker 6: And I thought for sure I was going to die.

Speaker 3: At that point. Nobody knows. Is this building going to blow up?

Speaker 6: And I remember running through the big doors of the school and the heat on my face from the sun and not being able to see anything around me. Like I just felt like I was entering this bright light. But I remember someone picking me up at that point and kicking my feet and flailing my arms and screaming, Put me down, put me down, please put me down. I just want my mom and my grandpa just told me I was safe and that he was taking me home. And I remember melting in his arms and I knew I was safe.

Speaker 4: There are dozens of children, but inevitably being loaded into ambulances with burns on their hands and face their faces blackened with smoke from the gas bomb that erupted only minutes ago. At this time.

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Speaker 3: There are many, many burn victims, so they are being transported to the hospital.

Speaker 4: Here. There’s a couple in shock.

Speaker 2: After a few moments of chaotic searching. Jay Metcalf and his older sisters were reunited.

Speaker 5: My sister Jamie found me. And then she tried to hug me.

Speaker 7: Just grabbed a hold of him.

Speaker 5: Right as soon as she touched my back or just hurt.

Speaker 7: He just screamed so loud.

Speaker 5: I never felt anything like that before.

Speaker 2: They were whisked away in ambulances. So were more than 70 other kids and teachers. The closest hospitals were more than 30 miles away and in opposite directions in different states. The paramedics didn’t have any time to coordinate.

Speaker 8: It’s chaos as parents looking for children. People would say, Have you seen my child? And. I couldn’t say yes or no. I don’t know. But what a feeling to have no control.

Speaker 2: Parents have been gathered in front of the school for hours. They’d come there as soon as word got out that all the children in Cokeville had been taken hostage.

Speaker 3: And I don’t think there was one father out there that didn’t have a gun because that guy wasn’t coming out of there alive.

Speaker 7: Deep down inside of me. I think I was thinking to myself, it would probably be best if he was no longer here.

Speaker 2: David Young was in the bathroom when the explosion happened. When he opened the door, he saw the music teacher running away and shot him in the back. David stepped into the classroom and found Doris engulfed in flames. He shot her, went back into the bathroom and shot himself.

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Speaker 3: We do now have confirmation that the man and woman, both who entered the school.

Speaker 4: And held the children hostage are both dead. Outside the body of Doris Young was laid on the ground, covered by a yellow shroud. The body of her husband was still inside the classroom.

Speaker 7: I finally had the courage to tell a dead body he wasn’t going to hurt me anymore.

Speaker 4: Today, the children of Cokeville, Wyoming awoke from a nightmare. And while there is a great sense of horror here, there is also a great sense of relief right now because it could have been so much worse. All of the people held hostage are still alive.

Speaker 2: Jay Metcalf would need a skin graft and would have to spend two weeks in a burn ward. One of the little girls closest to the bomb was in a body bandage for more than a year. But many of the kids got out with just scrapes and minor burns. Even the music teacher who’d been shot in the back was released from the hospital within a day. The next morning, Cynthia triplett came back to the sight of her would be job interview to collect her belongings.

Speaker 3: I get out of the car and I walk up to the superintendent who’s standing there at that point. And I looked at him and I said, You damn well owe me a job. So then they hired me and I was the kindergarten teacher for two years.

Speaker 2: In 1986, there hadn’t been an attack of this magnitude on an American school in memory. There was no blueprint for how to respond or even how to conceive of what had happened. The trope of the disturbed loner entering the school just didn’t exist. So the Cokeville bombing was talked about as a terrorist attack.

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Speaker 4: The more evidence that we get to more, we think he could have been connected with something. The group suspected, the Posse Comitatus. He subscribed to its militant anti-tax, anti-government theories.

Speaker 2: The media also speculated about potential accomplices, about Doris and the investors, and about Princess.

Speaker 4: David. Young stepdaughter is somewhat involved in this. Her name.

Speaker 7: Was Princess. Some say that she was with her father in Cokeville at the time.

Speaker 4: She came down and made the ransom demands. There may have been other people involved. You’re telling us that if there were, she may have been one of those others.

Speaker 7: She and a possible boyfriend. They don’t portray that. I you know much that I tried to go get help. All they portray is that because I was linked to him that I must be bad.

Speaker 2: The police investigated Princess, but never charged her or anybody else with a crime. She returned to Tucson to the home that she had shared with her parents.

Speaker 7: I was angry. How could they do this to me? How could they leave me like this? And people wanted answers and I didn’t have answers. I still don’t have answers.

Speaker 2: She married her high school sweetheart. A few months later, he was in the military and they moved overseas as far away as she could get from the wreckage her father had created.

Speaker 7: We swept it under the rug. We didn’t talk about it.

Speaker 2: And neither did the children of Cokeville.

Speaker 5: Amongst the kids. No, nobody really talked about it much.

Speaker 6: It was a subject we didn’t broach. I think bottling it up actually did more damage, but it felt like the right thing to do then for our community.

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Speaker 2: It would have been hard for the town to dwell on the potential carnage. All of the little kids and Cokeville had been sitting in that room 154 people in a town with a total population, barely over 500. Many came from large Mormon families with three or four kids in the school. If things had gone differently, the scale of the devastation is almost unimaginable.

Speaker 6: How generations lost generations on generations. I don’t know how Cokeville would have survived.

Speaker 5: It would have devastated the community. I would have completely destroyed the town.

Speaker 2: But why didn’t that happen? How is it possible that a bomb could have exploded in that cramped room and not a single one of them died? It’s something investigators were asking, too.

Speaker 4: There are the two windows and you can see the blackening from the smoke.

Speaker 2: This is from some eerie camcorder footage taken inside the crime scene soon after the bombing.

Speaker 4: There are hundreds of pieces of brass, shell and live bullets embedded in the walls in this classroom.

Speaker 2: Those bullets in the walls were what caused the popping sounds that survivors remembered hearing. They weren’t shot from a gun. They exploded as they heated up. The investigators found a number of factors that helped prevent the worst from happening, including that the milk jug filled with gasoline leaked, that the ceiling tile absorbed some of the blast and that two wires had somehow been severed. But the survival of every single hostage that was still improbable and required an incredible amount of good fortune, or maybe something else, something that science couldn’t explain.

Speaker 6: I mean, everyone that I’ve ever talked to knows that that we were saved and that there was a higher power.

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Speaker 6: It was at the end of my fourth grade year, or maybe the beginning of my fifth grade year. I was either 11 or 12. We were sitting around the kitchen table.

Speaker 2: One day about three years after the bombing. Jenny Johnson was helping her grandmother move old photographs from one book to another.

Speaker 6: And I’m just pulling all these pictures off this photo album, just laying them on the table. And I remember just turning the page and seeing the picture of a lady. And I knew her.

Speaker 2: When the bomb went off. Jenny remembered a teacher guiding her to safety when she went back to school. She says she didn’t see her around now. Jenny recognized the woman in the photo right in front of her.

Speaker 6: And I asked my grandma, where is she? What grade is she teaching? That she moved to a different school? Why haven’t I seen her? And I remember her just crying. Just tears streaming down her face. And she’s like, Oh, sweetheart, she died before the bombing.

Speaker 2: Jenny was looking at a photo of her great, great aunt.

Speaker 6: This is an aunt that helped raise my grandma and loved my grandma with all her heart. She’s like, I have no doubt she was there for you in your day of need. At that point, I. I knew that she couldn’t have been there as anything but an angel.

Speaker 2: Jenny wouldn’t share any of this publicly until many years later. But she wasn’t the first survivor to tell a story about angels.

Speaker 2: In 1987, the parents of one Cokeville student published a book called Trial by Terror. It’s mostly a straightforward journalistic account, but there is one chapter that veers into the other worldly. They tell the story of a six year old boy who says a lady warned him to move by the window just before the blast. Another boy says he heard a voice telling him to do the same. And his sisters described seeing figures in white hovering above the ground. In both cases, their parents brought out old family photos and the kids pointed to pictures of ancestors who had passed on.

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Speaker 6: And it was just amazing how they they all lined up. Like the kids wouldn’t even tell other parents their story. But then when the parents would get together and talk, the stories would line up.

Speaker 2: It seems that the parents kept this mainly among themselves, as far as I can tell. There was no talk of angel sightings in any of the news stories following the bombing. And the kids didn’t talk to each other about the bombing much at all.

Speaker 5: It didn’t really become a conversation topic again until they made a TV movie about it.

Speaker 4: Cokeville, Wyoming. A quiet town. No one could know the danger facing its children.

Speaker 2: The movie was called To Save the Children and it aired on CBS in 1994. David Young was played by Richard Thomas, best known as John Boy on The Waltons.

Speaker 4: You call yourselves teachers, importers of knowledge. You are nothing but cavers. Prison guards.

Speaker 7: I thought it was so ridiculous. It just wasn’t anything like what had actually happened, you know? They messed it up. It was. It was silly.

Speaker 2: The movie made no mention of angels. The only hint of anything spiritual came at the very end when children are brought back to of the rubble in the classroom and they see a strange marking on the wall.

Speaker 4: What’s that? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s where God stood.

Speaker 7: And they made that room. I mean, it looked very similar to the actual room that was like the one thing that they had done. Well.

Speaker 2: Jamie Conner had been laughing her way through the movie until she got to that final scene.

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Speaker 7: And I started to cry and I and I could not stop. And that’s not just tears. This is like, you know, the whole can’t breathe sobbing mess because of just one little scene of these two kids going into the room. And it just kind of brought it all back to me, and I just broke down.

Speaker 2: The broadcast seemed to trigger memories for the whole town of Cokeville, and now they were talking about what happened in a very different way. That same year, 1994, the book that the two parents had written about the bombing was revised and reprinted. It had a new focus and a new title instead of trial by terror. It was now called When Angels Intervene to Save the Children.

Speaker 2: It was around then that Princess Young first learned of the claims of angel sightings.

Speaker 7: I heard about that on TV, of all things, from Unsolved Mysteries.

Speaker 4: A few students were adamant about seeing what they called a presence hovering above the room the moments before the bomb ignited.

Speaker 2: This episode of Unsolved Mysteries aired in 1996, ten years after the bombing, the testimonies in the show went beyond the couple of families mentioned in the original book.

Speaker 6: I just have this overwhelming feeling that.

Speaker 3: Heavenly Father was there, that He was watching out over us.

Speaker 2: The story of the bombing is now almost always told through a religious lens. Especially since 2015. That’s when a new movie came out called The Cokeville Miracle.

Speaker 3: Dear God, we need your help today, especially if the bomb goes off.

Speaker 2: Several survivors participated in the shoot, which was done by a mormon production company.

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Speaker 6: There were other people in the room with us.

Speaker 2: But other people.

Speaker 6: Too. Ones on white.

Speaker 2: For Mormon audiences, the appearance of angels makes a lot of sense. Ancestors play a crucial role for Latter Day Saints.

Speaker 7: Well, we believe that there’s a big chain from past and future. We cannot be saved without them and they cannot be saved without us. So we help each other. Our ancestors are looking out for us.

Speaker 2: Janie Connor didn’t see angels herself. But at least ten former students have now come forward to say they have.

Speaker 8: I’ve heard a lot of things in the last years that I never heard before.

Speaker 2: Jean Mitchell found it surprising that she hadn’t heard these stories in the immediate aftermath of the bombing.

Speaker 8: And I do believe that she could remember things years after. I’m not I’m not saying those are true. I’m just saying my curiosity is, why didn’t I hear these earlier?

Speaker 2: She isn’t a skeptic. Exactly. She believes that something unexplainable happened in that room.

Speaker 8: You know, I personally didn’t see angels, but I’m not going to discount their sightings.

Speaker 2: I don’t think anyone is lying about what they saw. Everyone I’ve spoken with and all the accounts I’ve read, they feel entirely sincere. But memory is a tricky thing, especially when you’re talking about little kids as young as six years old. Skeptics have been raising questions for years, asking how miraculous it really is that a deranged man’s homemade bomb would have some design flaws. And what does it mean for the children who didn’t see angels protecting them?

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Speaker 7: I was mad. I was mad for a long time because I. I felt like I had been maybe I was a naughty little girl and maybe I didn’t deserve to have the comfort that they received.

Speaker 2: This is from a 2010 oral history of the Cokeville bombing done by the Wyoming State Archives. The woman being interviewed here was in the third grade class. She did not see angels. Neither did her future husband, who was also there that day.

Speaker 7: He doesn’t believe that God had anything to do with it. He doesn’t believe he thinks the angel thing is bogus. Does want to talk about it. It’s over. Get over it.

Speaker 6: People don’t like to admit sometimes that they’re. There are other beings or another dimension, maybe, I don’t know, angels or a Heavenly Father.

Speaker 2: Jenny Johnson has heard the doubts for a long time.

Speaker 6: And people can be cruel when they don’t have the same beliefs and you start doubting what you saw until you really think about it. And you’re like, No, I couldn’t have made that up.

Speaker 2: I mean, you’d heard some of the stories already of other classmates, heard stories about angels. So the thing I would ask is, is it possible that. This was sort of a suggestion that was kind of planted in your mind that you were sort of primed to see angels sort of understand that there were angels there because he’d already heard stories that they were from other kids.

Speaker 6: Possibly. I mean, there’s always that possibility. I just I just look at the situation and I just look at the picture of my aunt, and I just know it was her. Like, I know without a shadow of a doubt, it was her.

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Speaker 2: The belief that Cokeville bore witness to a miracle has brought a lot of comfort and healing. But that idea of divine intervention also brings some disquieting thoughts, because if there were angels in Cokeville, why didn’t they show up in Columbine or Sandy Hook or Uvalde?

Speaker 5: I think about that all the time. I you know, if there is a god, you know, sometime, you know, hopefully someday I’ll get the meaning of how I asked him those questions.

Speaker 7: It does make me feel some measure of responsibility for what I do with my life. You know, how how I live my life, because I was given essentially a second chance. I was given a miracle. And. And that affects me every day. It’s it’s it’s daunting sometimes.

Speaker 2: It’s easy to forget that there was loss suffered that day in Cokeville in an instant. Princess Young’s family was gone. She understands her father’s death as inevitable, but she doesn’t feel her stepmother, Dorsey, deserved it.

Speaker 7: She shouldn’t have died that day because there was a lot of good in her life. I don’t want her to be the villain.

Speaker 2: For decades, Princess felt like a villain, too. Suspicions continued to swirl in Cokeville about her role in the attack.

Speaker 6: Yeah, we did hear stories about Princess. She was talked about as part of the bad guys, the people in the white band, the perpetrators.

Speaker 2: To this day, teacher Cynthia Triplett insists that Princess was a willing accomplice.

Speaker 3: It wasn’t just the two of them. She darn sure was very knowledgeable about what was going on. It wasn’t a big surprise to her that day.

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Speaker 7: I did not know what was going on until it was too late. Why would I bring that stuff in the school or because you weren’t the one that was shaking so hard, you’re going to practically pee your pants. And then he pulls a gun out on you and it’s to your head. And I’ve run it over in my head over and over. How could I have stopped it sooner? Why couldn’t I have shot him in that hall? Why couldn’t I have been that brave watching all those kids? Run in the hall. I should have stopped him right there.

Speaker 2: A few years ago, some of those kids, now adults, began to contact her after the Cokeville Miracle Movie came out. They saw Princess in a whole new way.

Speaker 6: And I really understood her role in it.

Speaker 7: She had been the one to alert authorities as to what was going on.

Speaker 6: And I really got to see the hero she was.

Speaker 7: I probably cried more than I’ve ever cried in my life when I heard these people reaching out to me and to meet them for the first time was it was priceless. It was it was incredible.

Speaker 2: The children of the Cokeville bombing are all grown up now and many have kids of their own. Jamie Connor has seven. Each time one gets old enough to go to elementary school. It’s a fresh trauma.

Speaker 7: Especially my firstborn taking him to school on the very first day. I had a panic attack. I got out to my car and I wanted to run back into that school and grab him. And, you know, never, never let him go back to one of those schools again, you know? It scared me. But I think on the whole, I feel like I’ve put it behind me. I don’t dwell on it.

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Speaker 2: Ultimately, whether you believe a miracle occurred in that classroom in Cokeville is a matter of faith. Angelic visions can’t be proven or disproven, but we can say for certain that there were figures in that room keeping the children safe and guiding them from the blast. The teachers. Many of the factors the investigators cited for saving lives were the direct result of the teacher’s actions by taping off the Magic Square. They kept kids a good distance from the bomb. When the teachers opened the windows and doors, it created ventilation that blunted the bombs impact. And when the explosion finally happened, it was the teachers pushing children through windows and guiding them to safety.

Speaker 7: I think the teachers were amazing.

Speaker 6: They were absolute heroes.

Speaker 1: No, no, we’re not heroes or not. And every teacher, every person, every adult that was in that room will tell you the same thing. We were doing what we had to do at the time to keep this hall alive. Nobody was special.

Speaker 2: Jane Metcalf sees it differently. His back had caught on fire in the explosion. It was the fourth grade teacher, Cliff Sparks, who rushed over to pat it out with her hands.

Speaker 5: Right when I needed her to be there. You know, she was there for me. I wrote my fourth grade teacher a letter. And hopefully she was able to read it before she passed away because she was watching over me. You know, I told her I never saw any angels. But you are my angel that they.

Speaker 1: Evan Chung is one year’s senior producer. Next time on the season finale of one year 1986. An American becomes a propaganda star in the Soviet Union. But what are his real motivations?

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Speaker 4: He has toured Soviet factories. Many Soviets have shaken his hand. Does he feel exploited? Of course not. I know they want to use me, but I’m using them to.

Speaker 1: This episode of One Year was produced by Evan Chung. It was edited by me, Josh Levin and Derek John, Slate’s senior supervising producer of narrative podcasts. Additional production came from Madeline Ducharme, Sophie Summergrad and Sam Kim. Our senior technical director is Merritt Jacob. Holly Allen created the artwork for this season. You can send us feedback and ideas and memories from 1986 at one year at Slate.com. And you can call us on the one year hotline at 2033430777. We’d love to hear from you.

Speaker 1: Special thanks to Amy Bigelow Williams. Joanna Stoll. Jessica Clark. Kat Warren. Paul Kazi. Mark Young. Sue Castaneda. Mary Hartman. Hilary Frye. Christina Carucci. Katie Shepard. Susan MATTHEWS. Soul Were Then. Bill Carey. Katie Raiford. Ben Richmond.

Speaker 1: Kaitlin Schneider. Cleo Levin. Seth Brown. Rachel Strong and Alicia montgomery. Slate’s VP of Audio. Thanks for listening. We’ll be back next week with our season finale.