Miracle at Cokeville

If someone said “Cokeville” here in north Georgia, the listener might think the speaker was making a joke about living the city of Atlanta, home of the Coca Cola company — even home of the World of Coke.

But Cokeville is a real place, a small town in Wyoming not much bigger than the World of Coke, with a population of a little more than 500 people.

Five times more people visit the World of Coke in Atlanta on an average day than live in Cokeville, Wyoming. But why haven’t we heard of Cokeville before?


If our hypothetical speaker were to say “Columbine” instead, most listeners will immediately be reminded of the horrible massacre planned and executed by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold that took place at Columbine High School in Colorado, not the flower.

Twelve innocent high school students and one heroic teacher were murdered by two deranged teenagers, and twenty-four more people wounded.

Then Michael Moore’s movie Bowling for Columbine famously took advantage of the tragedy to advocate for stricter gun control, making sure we never forget the horrific massacre that took place on April 20, 1999.

What we’ve learned from modern terrorists is that if you take away all the guns, the lunatics will learn how to make bombs. Or they’ll steal a truck or bus, and run over people. If someone wants to commit murder and create terror and mayhem, they will find a way.

Back to Cokeville — what makes Cokeville, Wyoming so special? It’s special because of the tragedy that didn’t happen there. On May 16, 1986, David and Doris Young took as hostages more than 150 children and teachers at the Cokeville Elementary School. The Youngs were armed with a massive gasoline bomb, plus a small arsenal of firearms. According to reports, David and Doris intended to demand ransom of $300 million from the small community.

However, once the money had been collected, they planned to blow up the bomb anyway, killing all the hostages and themselves as well as destroying all the money. David’s diary actually revealed that the ransom demand was only a ruse. His real goal was to inflict the maximum possible financial and emotional pain on the entire town of Cokeville. But they failed.

The bomb was detonated, and the Youngs both killed, but none of the hostages died. About half of the hostages were wounded. None of the injuries were life-threatening, though.

David Young hated the people of Cokeville so badly that he wanted every last one of them to suffer heartache. His own suicidal plan and the death of his wife meant nothing to him. As long as he could destroy the hope of the whole town in one fell swoop, he would die a happy man.

David’s plan left nothing to chance. He built a test bomb to make sure the triggering device worked and it would explode, and it did. So did the real bomb. Yet, none of the hostages were killed.

How is this possible?

Observers claimed that David Young became very agitated when some of the schoolteachers led their students in prayer, trying to calm the children down. Their prayers agitated David Young, so he decided to step outside. Before exiting the classroom, David detached the bomb detonator from his wrist and put it on his wife’s. All of the children were huddled together against the far wall, near the windows.

This is where their story gets really interesting.

Quite a few of these children claimed a “beautiful lady” had appeared and told them to go there. For example, first grader Nathan Hartley said that he saw an angel he recognized as his great grandmother. Travis Walker claims that he heard an angel tell him to take his younger sisters to the window and keep them there.   His sisters Rachel and Katie described beings that shone like light bulbs hovering over the heads of each hostage. Then the inexplicable happened.

Doris Young set off the bomb prematurely, apparently by accident.  She staggered out of the classroom, engulfed in flames. David shot his wife to end her agony, and then turned the gun on himself.

Most of the townspeople had gathered outside the school because their children, or someone they knew was inside. They watched in horror as the school burst into flames. Children jumped from the windows as teachers crawled on the floor and helped others evacuate the burning building.

One teacher had been shot and one student struck by a stray bullet.  More than thirty students and teachers were treated for second degree burns. But an entire generation in the small town of Cokeville had been spared, by some kind of miracle. Bomb expert Richard Haskell testified, “I can’t tell you how lucky they were. When you look at the classroom—when you see all that charred furniture and burnt walls—it’s amazing that there weren’t 150 kids lying in there dead. To call it a miracle would be the understatement of the century.”

On the 20th anniversary of the incident, a group called the Cokeville Miracle Foundation (CMF) released a book titled Witness to Miracles, which included 187 firsthand descriptions of the events of that fateful day. Apparently many residents who collaborated with the CMF agree with Mr. Haskell’s professional opinion.

Given the name of the group and their book, it may come as no surprise to learn the words “In God We Trust” fill the entire background of the front cover.

These people would be fools if they didn’t.  They are convinced that they know what really happened — nothing less than divine intervention.

Skeptics and critics may rightfully ask, why didn’t God protect the innocent people at Columbine? My answer provides them no comfort — I don’t know.

But here’s something I do know…I wasn’t there that day, at Columbine High School. Or at Cokeville. So I cannot say what happened, or why.

As Carl Jung suggested, I can say that I’ve never had an experience in which I was saved from certain, imminent death by divine intervention, but I cannot say with any degree of confidence that these children were not.

No one can know what another person has experienced, unless they were present to witness the event in question.

Did God love the children at Cokeville more than the victims at Columbine? Of course not. Were those children spared because they had the opportunity to pray for divine intervention?

Again, to answer is to suggest that I am privy to the thoughts of God. And I’m not.

The question is, do miracles really occur? Absolutely. Did a miracle occur in Cokeville, Wyoming on May 16, 1986?

Clearly, the answer is unequivocally “yes.”

But was it a miracle that merely involved some extraordinary luck, or did some form of divine intervention truly occur?

Don’t ask me. I wouldn’t know. Ask someone who was there.

Ask a witness who actually saw what happened.




[Elaine Jarvik, Deseret News, May 15, 2006, article “Cokeville recollects miracle of 1986“]

[Dan Millman and Doug Childers, Divine Interventions, St. Martin’s Press]