Home Features Community Cokeville bombing survivor tells story to SUP

Cokeville bombing survivor tells story to SUP

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The Morgan Chapter of the Sons of Utah Pioneers held its monthly luncheon meeting on Feb. 19 at Larry’s Spring Chicken Inn.  Elden Jensen presented the Pioneer of the Month report and Joanna Stowell was the featured speaker.

Jensen talked about his ancestors who came from Scotland.  Among them were his Grandma Jensen as well as some other great, great grandfathers.  One was a Loyalist who had fought for England.  Following the Revolutionary War, when he was returning to Scotland, they were overtaken by a storm and had to lay over in Nova Scotia, after having to swim to shore.  He married while in Nova Scotia.  Afterward they came to Massachusetts, where his great, great grandfather was born.  They joined the trek West in 1855, arriving in Utah that same year.  In 1857 he took a second wife.

As they were exploring the Bingham Canyon Area, they found ore.  When they discussed their find with President Brigham Young, they were told to leave it alone.  Put off by Brigham’s abruptness, they left the church and went to Nevada.

While still in Utah, they helped Lot Smith harass Johnson’s Army, with the help of one of the army members.  They took a mule and the entire amount of salt that the army had, thereby contributing to sickness in Johnson’s Army.

Another great, great grandfather also came West, moving to Spanish Fork, and then onto Richfield.  By trade he was a doctor, but, due to the lack of medicines, he could not do much to help the sick.  He was the only doctor in the Richfield area.  One of his accomplishments was sewing a foot back on that had been almost completely cut off.

Following Jensen’s remarks Joanna Stowell spoke of her experience being one of the children taken hostage when the Cokeville Elementary School in Wyoming was bombed 30 years ago.

Stowell was born in American Fork, Utah, but her family moved to Cokeville when she was 4 years old.  In 1999 she married Chad Stowell.  They have four children and now live in Layton.  Her story is best told in her own words:

“Even though 30 years have passed since the bombing at Cokeville Elementary School, it is still something that is difficult for me to speak about. But I also feel that God has saved my life so that I can be a witness for him and his miraculous powers and His goodness.

Coakville’s population was about 500 so the school and the classes were small. We all met together in the same building until the new building was constructed when I was in the fourth grade. 1985/86  was my fifth grade year.

On May 16, 1986, the day was so ordinary that I don’t remember how it began. I imagine it was just the same as any other day we had, with pancakes and my mom kissing us just before we left to catch the bus. We lived on a farm seven miles outside of town.

My memories of that day begin after lunch. After lunch my class had band. My teacher, John Miller, had left the classroom to get the TV and VCR so we could watch our Spring concert. He left and never came back. That left a group of 10- and 11-year-olds alone in a room, so we did what 10- and 11-year-olds do when they’re left alone, we started to goof around and play.

We were making so much noise that two different times our school janitor came by and looked through the glass window in the door to see what we were doing. We would sit down and act like we were being good, and then he would leave and we would start to goof off again.

The third time that someone came to the door, the door actually opened and we all hurried and sat in our chairs and turned to look to see who is coming into the room. There was a woman whom I had never seen before. That was strange because in a town that small you knew everybody. The woman that came into the room was small and had dark hair and wore dark tinted glasses. She told us that there was an assembly in the second grade room and we needed to follow her.  Being from a small town and being very trusting, having been surrounded our entire lives by adults who loved us and look out for us, we just lined up and followed her out the door. I remember wondering as we walked down, why everything seemed so dark. We walked into the room and my first thought was that this was the strangest assembly I’ve ever seen because all the desks in the room had been shoved up against the wall and children and teachers were sitting on the floor.

There was a man in the back and there were guns and boxes lined up against the wall.  Next to the man was an upright shopping cart, which seemed to be full of jugs and wires and boxes of things. I looked around and noticed that people were crying and again there was this darkness that seemed to fill the room. Everything just seemed wrong and off.

I walked up to our principal, whose name was Max Excell, and I said “Principal Excell, what is going on?” I know that as adults we try and soften things for children and try to protect them; we don’t want them to be hurt. But in that moment I needed to know the truth of what was happening and he very kindly told me the truth. He said, “Joanna, this man has a bomb and he is taking our school hostage.”

At that moment all the security that I’d known in my life from a loving family and a loving community, and all the safety that comes with that just shattered inside of me. Nothing felt safe anymore and I went in tears to my teacher, who was sitting on the floor. He was surrounded by children. He was a very popular teacher, was fun loving and wonderful and everybody loved him. I wanted to be with him, I needed some comfort. I can’t say enough about the teachers that were at the school and how brave and how good they were. He made a space for me by his leg and he patted me while I cried.

I must have been kind of noisy because the same woman walked up holding a box of tissues and said “What’s the matter with her?” I remember feeling angry with her and I just wanted to yell at her and say, “Scary lady, you’re the matter with me. You and your creepy husband and your bomb you’re scaring us all to death.” I just wanted to yell at her, but I was afraid of her and I felt at that moment that I didn’t want her to notice me, I didn’t want her to ever speak to me again. Clearly crying and being emotional is going to get them to notice me. And so I just sat up really fast and just said, “I‘m fine.”  She said “Well, good,” and threw the box of tissues at me.  So I blew my nose and I sat there and thought about what was going on.

I watched some more children being brought in and as I was watching them, I saw my brother and I saw my sister. They were both younger than me. As I saw them I realized I had something very important that I needed to do, something that I knew my parents would want me to do. I needed to look out for them. I needed to protect them and make sure that they were safe. So I gathered my brother and my sister and we found a little space and we comforted each other. We were in room that was 32 by b 30 and there were 154 people in this tiny space, so there wasn’t a lot of room.

We found out that the man and his wife’s names were David and Doris Young. He indicated that we could be there for days, so the teachers would say that they would like to get things for the children to do; coloring pages, crayons, books, some toys and different things from our rooms. He would always tell them, “You can go out and do these things, but you’ve got to be back in five minutes, or 10 minutes. If you’re not back in that time, I will start shooting these children until you come back.” There was no way they could leave, no way they could do anything to bring us help. All they could do was follow his instructions and keep us safe.  I remember they tried to get some items and things to keep our minds occupied, but it was so hard because we were so terrified.

As we sat there together, I looked around the room and I could see little groups of students sitting together. They would try to get into his blind spot where he couldn’t see them and they would kneel down and pray. As I watched them fold their arms and bow their heads and pray together, I felt bad and thought, “Why didn’t I think of that, why didn’t I think to pray?” I had a thought come into my mind, “You can still pray; you can always pray.” So in that moment, I bowed my head and I prayed that we would be okay and that I would be able to see my mom and my dad again, that my brother and sister and I all the rest of the children would be okay, that somehow things would work out.

I remember a feeling of peace coming over me. Not that my circumstances had changed. Nothing had changed. We were still in room with a scary man and his scary wife and they had a bomb and they were threatening to hurt us.

Outside circumstances hadn’t changed, but inwardly there was a big change. The peace of God rested upon me and I knew that he was mindful of us, and that things would be okay. I didn’t even know what okay meant. Would that mean that we would get out? There was no clear answer, but just a feeling of calm.

We were kept in the room from after lunch until between 3:30 and 4 o’clock. During this time the only person that was allowed to leave the room on a regular basis was the principal, Max Excell. David Young had him calling the governor of the state of Wyoming, and people at the White House. David Young wanted him to get his commands for ransom, which was $1 million per child, directly to the president of the United States, which at that time was Ronald Reagan.

With the amount of people in the room, the little children being fidgety started to bother David Young. He demanded that the teachers come up with the solution to keep the kids away from him. The teachers came up with an idea that we would play a game called Magic Square. They made a 10 foot by 10 foot taped square. I can still see them pulling out the masking tape and patting it down. They placed a desk in the middle and David Young went to the middle of the square and sat on the desk. In this way there was a buffer between him and us. I remember thinking at the time just feeling anger toward him, that he was so selfish, because here we were in this tiny little space and now the amount of space that we just had to sit and be, was even smaller than before.

The bomb was a gasoline bomb and the smell of the gasoline was overpowering. Kids were throwing up, people were experiencing terrible headaches because all the doors and windows were shut, so they pleaded with him to open the windows and the door to be able to get some fresh air in. He did agree to that.

Finally, one of the teachers got his permission to bring in television, which they set up along the wall where the windows were that faced outside. If you asked any of the kids that were there that day they would tell you that we watched The Transformers. After the cartoon was over another show came on. It was a documentary style show and the only child in the whole room that was interested was me.

There was something about it that reminded me of the news, and my dad loved the news. We watched the 5 o’clock news, the 5:30 news, we watched the 10 o’clock news. My dad was a history teacher and we were always watching for current events. There was something about it just reminded me of my father and gave me a feeling of comfort.

The only place that my brother and sister and I could find a place to sit was right to the very edge of the Magic Square. We were told that we were going to play this game, Magic Square, and if we crossed over the line we were out. What that meant was that he was going to shoot anyone who cross the line. We didn’t want to be anywhere near the Square, but it was the only place that we could sit. We had my brother Jay situated so that his back was to David Young. He was so young, just 7, and was so scared that we didn’t want him to have to look at him constantly. So we set him up so he was facing us, and the windows. He was coloring and I was playing a peg game and was watching this little documentary show that had come on and I felt so drawn toward it. I wanted to be there, right in front of it. So I told my brother and sister that I would be right back.

I got up and walked to where I was standing right in front off the TV. As I was standing there, the whole room just shook and there was this sound that I will never be able to describe. It was the loudest boom. Instantly everything just went black and I flew through the air with the concussive force of the explosion. I was facing the wall.

Now there’s no physical way to explain what happened. The only way to explain it is that there was someone there, someone who saved my life, someone who helped me. They turned me and I hit the wall with my back rather than face. My head hit the wall and I was knocked unconscious. Now what happens when you’re not unconscious? You fall. But I didn’t fall.

I stayed upright against the wall, held in place while 155 other people in terror and panic stampeded throughout that room. One small child in a room pitch black with smoke would never have been seen. I would have been trampled and would have been killed. There were three different instances one right after another where I should’ve died in a matter of five seconds, and yet I was saved.

I still remember waking up.  My eyes opened and all I had was my sight. I couldn’t hear anything, I couldn’t even smell anything, I just could see and everything was blackness. I said to myself ”Wow, I’m dead. Okay, what’s going to happen next?”

As I was watching I would see lights, streamers of fire just ripping through the air. You could see the fire ignite in the air. Then my sense of hearing and smelling came back I could smell the smoke and I could hear the roaring of the flames.

Above it all, I could hear screaming, terrible screaming of children in pain and in fear. But I was still standing upright and I could feel a pressure on my chest. Finally, when all my senses kicked back into gear, all of a sudden that pressure was release and I fell to my hands and knees. I thought, “What do I do? What do I do? I don’t know what to do. I don’t know where to go, I can’t see.”

Above the flames and the screaming I heard the voice of my sixth grade teacher, Jack Mitchell. It carried like a bell. He said “Get down, get out. Get down, get out.” He just kept repeating that over and over again and I just knew and I could follow that voice to safety. So I crawled past the flames and through the smoke towards that voice that meant safety. As I came out of the darkness and he could see me, he grabbed hold of me by the back on my pants and the back of my shirt and chucked me right out the door. I can still feel it, going through the air, my legs running so when I hit the ground I was running. There was a hallway and two sets of double doors and I went through both.

I was out and I just ran, I ran across the road and towards the grass and towards Main Street, and then this horrible sense of realization just came crashing down on me and I thought to myself, “I’ve left them. I’ve left them. My brother and my sister, I’ve left them. I don’t know where they are. How can I go, how can I leave without them, how can I ever ago and face my parents and tell them, I left them. I’m the oldest. It’s my job to make sure that they’re okay.” And so I turned around and headed back towards the school because I needed to find them. They were my responsibility.

As I was going back towards the school I heard my name being screamed. I turn around and it was my sister, Jamie, and she had my brother, Jay. We were running and we were hugging each other and were so excited to see each other.

Jay just stood off to the side and he was just kind of shaking, standing there. I remember I started to reach for him but Jamie was screaming at me and I couldn’t figure out why. But she was screaming, “No,” and as I reached for my brother and gathered him into my arms he just stiffened up like are board and then he just screamed in my ear and I dropped him. My sister said that there was something wrong with him and that she didn’t know what, but he’s hurt really bad and we need to get help.

We started towards Main Street where we could see ambulances and people, police cars and all kinds of stuff ahead. On the way over, another person came running out of the crowd and it was my oldest sister, Andrea.

I still remember how Jamie and I took Jay and stuffed him behind us and stood like a shield wall. She barreled into us and we hugged her and then she tried to reach for Jay and we tackled her down to the ground and told her not to touch him, that there was something wrong and we needed to get help.

We took him out to Main Street.  Jamie’s face and hands were soot black. She had gone out the window so she had scrapes up and down her stomach. Paramedics grabbed her, checking her out because they thought she had burns.  They stuffed her into an ambulance and took her to the hospital in Star Valley.

Losing my sister like that was the last straw. I looked around and saw John Miller, my music teacher, who’d been shot, collapse on the ground right on the curb. I saw my friend Amy being hosed in the Taylor’s yard with a garden hose. They where turning her and turning her and she was screaming. I saw kids collapsing all over and parents screaming. It was chaos and pandemonium and I just couldn’t take it anymore and I shut down.

It was during that time that we found my mother, and that was all I wanted, was to see my parents. I don’t even remember finding her. They took my brother to a neighbor’s house and they carefully cut off his shirt. He had had his back to the bomb when it went off and flames went right over the back of him and burned him up over his back, the side of his face, and down his arms. His skin was coming off in sheets. They were putting wet towels on him, which gave him a moment of relief and then he started to shake and shutter again. Eventually they were able to find the paramedics and he was taken to the hospital in Montpelier, Idaho.

Word began to circulate that every single child had gotten out. The teachers wouldn’t leave until they had accounted for every child, so we knew that while some were badly burned, no one had died, that all the teachers were accounted for, and that the only fatalities were David and Doris Young. That began the time of looking for answers, that even though we were in a room with a bomb, we all survived.

Gradually stories came out of children that had seen angels.

Katie and Rachel Walker and their brother Travis were in the room that day. A woman appeared to Katie and Rachel and told them they didn’t need to be afraid, that the bomb was going to go off and their brother Travis was going to come and find them and they needed to do exactly what he said. Then she disappeared. Travis came over and said he really felt they needed to move, so he moved his sisters to an area that was closer to the door. Even though that didn’t prevent them from being burned, it helped them to be able to be some of the first out of the room.

Another boy whose name is Nathan Hartley also had an angelic visitor. This woman also told him that the bomb was going to go off and that he needed to be prepared to get out as quickly as he could. He said that he turned and looked and he saw angels that were with every person in the room. Every child, every teacher, had an angel and interestingly enough, even David and Doris Young had angels. But right before the bomb went off, their angels left them.

I’ve thought a lot about that and what that means and I think it means that God loves us and he wants to give us every chance that he can possibly give us to repent. And I think that their angels were calling out to them and saying to them, “Don’t do this.  You can still stop. You can still change. You don’t have to do this,” but he was past feeling and she was past feeling and they did not listen to those voices that were calling out to them to have mercy to do good, so they were left to experience the consequences of their choices.

We also experienced the consequences of their choices, but God with this infinite mercy and love sent angels to help and even though it didn’t take away the pain and the trials and the hardship we experienced, it did make it possible for us to live and to be able to be with our families again. I think about all the things that happened.

Nathan said that every angel that was in the room with every person right before the bomb went off gathered around the border that was the Magic Square and when the bomb went off, it carried the main force blast up into the ceiling through the air ducts of the room instead of out, and so we were saved. The way the bomb was designed to work it should have blown out the walls and brought the ceiling down on top of us.

I talked about the Magic Square and how hard it was to give up that space, but that was actually a miracle as there was is no one next to the bomb when it exploded. All of us were 10 feet away, and so that fireball that consumed Doris Young did not take the lives on any of the children.

I talked about the gas and the smell and how everyone was suffering from headaches and nausea and how hard that was to experience that kind of discomfort in the middle of being so terrified and afraid. But because of those things, the doors and windows were open and instead of the entire room being filled with gas fumes that would have ignited into a fireball; instead, there were ribbons of gasoline, and that’s what I saw when I woke up.

So instead of all of us being burned in a flash of gas exploding, there were just ribbons that would whiz past and burn an arm or burn a leg instead of burning an entire body. All of these things ultimately made it possible for us to survive.

Maybe it doesn’t seem like a miracle when I say that children were burned, and yet it was. We were protected. We were able to live and to walk away from that experience, and in every single instance where children saw angels, they later were able to identify those angels as ancestors. Our ancestors watch over us and they remember us. They care for us, they pray for us, and when God tells them they can, they run to help us. Heaven is full of friends and full of people that love us.

Our trials do not define us, but our response to them does. As we turn to the Lord, Jesus Christ, in all things, we can see his hand softening the experiences of our lives and making it possible for us to get through things and times that are difficult and stressful, the times when we think we will break. If we turned to the Lord, he will make possible to make it through. He provides us help and help and ministering angels.”

 

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