On May 16, 1986, an elementary school in Cokeville, Wyoming, was held hostage by a couple with a bomb. The miraculous events that followed have changed many people forever—especially survivor Amy Bagaso Williams.
A Day of Terror
On May 16, 1986, David Young and his wife, Doris, quietly and methodically took control of Cokeville Elementary. Ten-year-old Amy and her fellow fifth-graders were unknowingly drawn into the crisis when Doris Young came to the classroom and told them there was an emergency and everyone needed to gather in the first graders’ classroom.
“I felt immediately uncomfortable,” Williams recalls. “There was nothing extraordinary about her, just something weird.”
There was no reason to question her, so the class made their way down the eerily silent hallway and into the 30-by-30-foot room where the rest of the students and staff were being held—154 people in all. David Young stood holding a string attached to a homemade bomb.
Principal Max Excell was the one who helped Williams understand the situation. “I asked him what was happening, and he told me we were being held hostage,” she recalls. David Young, a former Cokeville police officer who was fired for misconduct seven years earlier, was now back to start a revolution and was demanding a ransom of $2 million per child. “He started reading his proclamation of a brave new world, and at that point, kids started crying.”
Williams started crying too. “I began to wonder, ‘What happens if I die today? I don’t know where to go. Will I see my family again?’ I was really scared for the unknown. Most of the kids in my class were LDS, but I wasn’t, and I didn’t have the knowledge that they did.” She continues, “We didn’t go to church, read scriptures, or talk about Jesus. I was a boat on an ocean without a sail—there wasn’t any anchor to tell me what life was about.”
Gasoline fumes from the bomb began making people sick, so David Young allowed some windows to be opened. He also allowed teachers to group the children together as classes to help keep them calm. That’s when a kindergarten teacher invited Williams to join her and some students in prayer.
“I told her I didn’t know how to pray. She said, ‘You don’t have to know how,’” Williams recalls. “I crawled over and folded my arms and bowed my head. I don’t remember much of what she said, but I remember suddenly feeling like I had a warm blanket around my shoulders—this incredible amount of comfort and joy that I can’t explain. I knew in my heart that I would be okay no matter what happened.”
With newfound courage, Williams decided to do something to comfort the other children. “It was really hot. We were sweating,” she recalls. “So I asked a teacher to ask David if I could give the kids some water.” Young agreed, so Williams found an old Miracle Whip jar with paintbrushes in it. She washed out the jar, filled it with cold water, and began taking it around for the children to drink.
“I handed the jar to Mikey Thompson. He raised it to his lips, and that was it,” she says. “There was this loud noise, and the room filled with this bright red color. I was flung over him, and we all ended up in a pile on the floor.”
Doris Young had accidentally set off the bomb while her husband was across the hall in the bathroom.
“Kids were screaming. The room was filled with smoke,” Williams recalls. “I was getting stepped on, and kids were bumping into each other trying to get out. I saw a light coming from the hallway, and I knew I had to get toward that door.”
She continues, “When I got outside to the hallway, I felt a tickling sensation on my shoulder and ear. I took a few steps and started feeling heat on my skin—I realized I was on fire.” She dropped to the floor and started rolling to put out the flames. Soon two teachers ran to her aid and slapped the flames out with their bare hands. “Then they picked me up and told me to run,” she says.
When Williams got outside, she saw the music teacher, John Miller, lying on the ground, his white shirt soaked in dark, red blood. As the children escaped, David Young began firing a gun into the smoke-filled classroom. None of the kids were hit, but Miller was shot in the spine. (He would later recover.)
A Day of Miracles
With third-degree burns on her face and neck, Williams began wandering down the street past the crowd of officers, frantic parents, and dazed children. Eventually, Glenna Walker, a mother with three children of her own inside the school, found Williams and brought her to an ambulance where medics began treating her wounds. But then Williams’s mother took matters into her own hands.
“My mom grabbed a garden hose and began running cold water all over my body,” she recalls. “As I was standing there, I heard someone say, ‘We’re all here!’ Everyone started cheering.”
Miraculously, all the students and staff made it out alive. Only David Young and his wife perished. And although the bomb was strong enough to destroy a large section of the school, bomb experts were astounded to learn that only one of the five blasting caps had detonated. Some children also reported seeing angels during the ordeal. Although Williams did not see angels that day, she experienced a different kind of miracle.
Her parents rushed her to a hospital in Montpelier, where the staff was unaware of the bombing. “My hair and eyelashes were gone. My face was completely unrecognizable,” Williams recalls. “All the nurses cried as they cleaned my wounds,” she says, “and the doctor was talking to my parents about skin grafts and plastic surgery.”
Soon, more victims began to arrive, and Williams learned that two Melchizedek priesthood holders were offering priesthood blessings, so she asked for one.
“I remember that same feeling I felt in the classroom when I prayed,” she recalls. “I felt deep peace. I experienced an incredible feeling of being known and loved. I was told my scars would completely heal and no one would look upon my face and know what had happened. Instead, the scars I would have to heal from would be those of forgiveness and trust.”
Williams's skin began to heal at a rapid rate, and despite the severe burns, no scar tissue formed. Over time, her skin healed completely, and today she carries no scars from the events of that day. But for Williams, her miraculous healing was not the greatest miracle she experienced.
“The true miracle of my experience was not that I survived or that the third-degree burns I suffered healed without a trace—it was that I learned I was not alone in the world.”
A New Life
A few years later, with the encouragement of some LDS friends, Williams began taking missionary discussions. "It took me a few years to connect the priesthood blessing with the LDS Church, but I knew something special happened that day," she says. Williams was baptized on August 16, 1989—her 14th birthday. And she has stayed strong in the gospel from the beginning.
“The bombing set the foundation for how I would live my life and how I would face other tragedies,” she says. “There is a responsibility to live my life a certain way after what I have experienced.”
She married her husband in the Manti Temple on March 16, 2000. They have four children and are expecting another baby in September.
“Each year, I celebrate two birthdays,” she says. “The first is August 16, the day of my physical birth, and the second is the day I call my spiritual birth: May 16, the day of the bombing."
LDS filmmaker T.C. Christensen, creator of 17 Miracles and Ephraim's Rescue, is bringing the powerful true story of the Cokeville hostage crisis to the big screen in The Cokeville Miracle. See the film on June 5 in select theaters is Utah, Colorado, and Arizona, or arrange a screening of the film in your own town. Visit tugg.com and request a screening for at least 60 people. It's the perfect film for a ward or stake activity. Don't miss out on this beautiful, faith-promoting film.