Prayer and Miracles: Cokeville Bombing Lessons Told to a Columbine Survivor

In mid-April, I spoke to a peer group about my experiences at Columbine. It's a part of my life, one that I don't frequently revisit, but impossible not to reflect on from time to time. One listener took the time to write an incredibly thoughtful response to the presentation.

"I think all of us were hurt by what happened that day at Columbine," writes Margie Duffy. "We all remembered exactly where we were when we heard the news. I think that day broke something in all of us to some small degree. Whenever you tell your story, you heal us one by one. Thank you for sharing your witness that God is real and that He knows about tiny wounds in mortal souls that need a balm of healing."

Fresh off this experience and sensitive to the impact of talking about heavy topics, a friend looped me into a Facebook thread about a new movie coming out in June called "The Cokeville Miracle."

I've driven past Cokeville, Wyoming, but never knew about the madman and his wife who held an elementary school hostage in 1986. Wheeling in a high-powered shrapnel bomb and a full arsenal of guns, they terrorized a school of 154 kids and their teachers, demanding a $300 million ransom. The bomb went off and no one died, except the perpetrators.

Why did Cokeville receive the miracle of innocent lives being saved and Columbine didn't? I think exploring this question can continue to offer healing to those pieces in us we don't fully recognize are hurt. There are parallels and significant differences worth taking a look at, guided by accounts from four survivors who graciously shared their stories with me. Their stories are also represented in the film - which has led to further healing.

"Cokeville didn't ask for this - we have never, ever said that we are special because we were saved, but we do say that prayer is special," says Kam Wixom, who was a 12-year-old at Cokeville Elementary in 1986. "If this story is going to continue to be told, we want that to be the message of hope."

Families and neighbors were in that room together, comforting and one another

"I don't remember what I uttered in that simple prayer almost 30 years ago, but I do know that as I sat there and held hands with other survivors, Heavenly Father was aware of us and listening," said Katie Walker Payne, then a first grader. "My brother came over and told my sister and me to go sit by the window. He then went to tell his friends and the bomb detonated. I felt compression and heat and I heard teachers screaming and yelling to get down."

Lori recounted several miracles from that day. The preservation of 154 lives; the wires on the bomb being cut clean to cripple the blast; the windows being open for ventilation carried the smoke out; the shrapnel and bullets exploding from the bomb not touching or injuring a single person; the bomb blasting upwards instead of outwards; the right people being in the right place at the right time to provide Immediate help after the bomb exploded and students being prepared because of an increase of fire drills in the preceding weeks.

"I remember coloring a picture, wondering what would become of us, and then suddenly being blown back against the wall," Lori said. "There was an ultra bright light and then total blackness. I wondered for a moment if I was dead or alive, and I realized I needed to get out. How I knew where I was in that smoke-filled room or how to get out, I do not know. I simply got on my knees and started crawling in the exact direction I needed to go."

Jennie Sorensen Johnson was a first grader at Cokeville, but cautious about sharing her experience because of potential ridicule from others. She had a "teacher" help her out of the burning classroom who she did not recognize at the time.

"I never said anything to anyone until we were looking through some family albums with my grandma when I was 11 or 12," Jennie said. "Seeing a woman's picture, I asked what grade she had taught and why she quit teaching after the bomb. My grandma looked at the picture of her aunt and said she died in her eighties and had never been a teacher in Cokeville. I explained that she was the teacher that led me out when the bomb went off. She was there and saved me. I didn't see angels in white, but I saw and listened to who I needed to. I believe that our loved ones love us and are aware of us."

The aftermath and lessons learned

Speaking about PTSD, Jennie knows what her triggers are. Large fires, smells of gasoline, loud explosions, unknown bearded men, white vans and the actual sight of the Cokeville Elementary School.

"My thoughts are immediately drawn to that day with any of these triggers," Jennie said. "I don't experience too many panic attacks anymore because I have learned to breathe through the anxiety and focus, but the thing that distinctively changed my PTSD is when my own children began elementary school as first graders. I would peer through the windows, sit outside and watch over them during recess like a creeper just to make sure nothing was happening to them. The connection that my brain was making with my kids being in first grade and what happened to me in first grade was hard to control. This anxiety continued until all my children reached second grade and then a weight lifted."

"When my last son reached the end of first grade, I had the opportunity to tell them about the traumatic event in my life. Being kids, they were curious. They wanted to get involved as extras in the making of "The Cokeville Miracle." How could I say no even when my heart was beating out of my chest? They wanted to do this for me. I know the purpose I was saved and that purpose calls me MOM!"

Katie has always recognized the miracles of the day, but healing hasn't come easy.

"That day was terrifying, but so was learning how to live with the aftermath in my life. I have triggers and I still struggle sometimes, though I will not let that day define who I become. I want to really live and make a positive difference in the lives of others."

With Columbine, one clear pattern I noticed in the tragedy's aftermath is that half the community turned to God, choosing to learn from the incident while others buried their hurt, embittered by the pain and senselessness. For me, the choice to believe in God, seek His hand and learn from the experience seemed the obvious choice.

"How we convert that experience into good and positive things matters," Kam said. "There is PLENTY to be grateful for, and no doubt the Lord can help us turn the horrible and terrifying into the miraculous and glorious. It depends on your focus. The knowledge that God lives, and is still a God of miracles in this modern day has molded much of my thinking."

Lori says that God truly is all-powerful, that "His ways are higher then our ways," and that He can and will intervene in behalf of His children.

"I learned that His tender mercies are everywhere--you just have to look for them," she said. "God can heal even the deepest of wounds and the most difficult sorrows. I learned that angels are real and that they are very much involved in our lives when necessary. Focusing on the positive, rather than the negative helped immensely. My parents were so thankful we survived that we didn't spend time EVER talking about David and Doris Young or why they would do this horrible act. We just focused on being grateful. Gratitude is a great healer."

Kam's lessons from Cokeville are profound:
1. Bad things can happen anywhere, anytime.
2. Not all men in beards are bad, but the eyes can tell you.
3. God does intervene when men use their freedom to ask for His help.
4. I need to pray.
5. Miracles are real.
6. Angels are real, and evidently our relatives are among them.
7. Being super intellectual is not necessarily an advantage, but children praying with childlike faith is a super power.
8. God lives. I've noted the irony of David's philosophy that "God equals nothing," when this very story proves: "Nothing equals God."

"I have learned that each healing journey is different and that I can't heal for someone else or take their pain as they walk their own individual healing journey," Katie observes. "I can offer compassion support and my love to them - how and when they heal is their journey and their choice."

As a society we tend to talk around or mock prayer and having faith in God. What is sacred to some, is smeared by others - even after we hear eye-witness accounts of miracles. The innocent and pure, often children, have an inside track to being honored in their prayers. Any sincere petition to God is powerful. We'd all do well learning to see God's hand in our lives.