I got a chance to talk to Jennie Sorensen Johnson, who was seven when David Young rolled a bomb into her first grade classroom. She is one of the survivors whose story has become a part of The Cokeville Miracle. She is a beautiful example of turning tragedy into triumph.
LDS Blogs: You said earlier that you have quirks that came from this experience- care to elaborate?
Jennie: When my kids went to school, I wasn’t overly emotional. A lot of moms struggle with that first day of school. But I was ok. Kindergarten came and went. But when they each hit first grade something changed. I became the anxious and watchful mom. I felt like I was going crazy. I would stay at school and just watch the classroom.
I wondered why I did it. But then I remembered my experience. I was in first grade when the bomb went off. It was my classroom. I remember our teacher was reading to us and this man walked into the room with a shopping cart bomb full of gasoline. A woman followed carrying a whole bunch of guns.
We were there in that room for two and a half hours with the rest of the school crowded in with us. But for a kid time is different. It may as well have been two weeks.
I remember the aftermath of that day was all over the world. I even have a newspaper clipping from a Japanese newspaper with a story about that day. It’s amazing to me how word traveled.
LDS Blogs: How did the community react afterward?
Jennie: We were happy go lucky, and upbeat. This all happened two weeks before summer break. May 16 that year was a Friday. Two days after the bomb, on Sunday, they took us all back into the classroom to look around.
I remember looking at where I was sitting when the bomb went off. I have no idea how I survived. There wasn’t a square inch that wasn’t full of bullet holes and fire damage. That we all got out, that we were all alive, that was a miracle.
By Tuesday we were back in the classroom and finished out the school year. We were ok because our teachers were heroes.
LDS Blogs: In the movie we saw many children being led out by angels. Did you have an angel?
Jennie: I did. But I didn’t know she was an angel. My angel wasn’t dressed in white, she wore normal clothes. I didn’t know who she was. I thought she was just a really nice teacher. I kept looking for her for years after that.
After the bomb went off there wasn’t a lot of fire. I do remember seeing Doris Young on fire, but otherwise there wasn’t much flame. There was a lot of smoke though. It was thick and black, and it was hard to see.
My angel led me out, but I turned around and went back in because I lost my shoe. I was worried my Mom would be mad at me for losing it (to my relief we found it on our tour of the burnt classroom, but now I know my mom didn’t care about the shoe!). My angel took my shoulders and turned me around and led me out by the hand. I couldn’t have gotten out without her.
But it was years before I found out who she was. I was 7 when the bomb went off. But it was when I was 12 that I figured it all out. I used to help my Grandma to put family pictures in photo albums on Sundays.
I remember we were moving photos from one album to another and I finally found the woman who helped me. I held up the picture and asked who she was. I kept saying “This is the teacher! This is the teacher who helped me out of the school after the bomb! She was so nice. Why haven’t I had her yet? I want to have this teacher.”
Everyone was crying. I thought I had done something wrong. You know how it is when you’re a kid. You don’t always understand.
The woman I had identified was my Great, Great Aunt Ruth. I hadn’t talked about that day before. I mean, my folks took me to a therapist, but I was scared of him. Even though he was nice, it was too weird being in a room alone with a strange man. I clammed up.
As for the town, Cokeville never talked about that day after it happened. Some still haven’t, and it has been 30 years. There are miracles we don’t know about yet. I want the other survivors to know they aren’t crazy. Every miracle counts. And I hope this movie helps people heal. It helped me a lot.
I was blessed to get to talk to TC Christensen in the process of making this movie. He made it an open set, and he invited every survivor to be a part of it. We got to come look over the scripts and share our memories. We got to watch the filming and talk to the cast. I feel he did a great job telling our stories.
LDS Blogs: Do you know why crazy guy did it?
Jennie: David Young was very diabetic and very brilliant. But the diabetes somehow effected his mind. They went through his journals. He had been the town marshal. He was a sharp shooter. And he would spin his gun on his finger and shoot stuff. It was cool. But then he changed. When he started shooting at people’s feet they fired him. He went from normal to crazy.
His bomb at the school was carrying out a vendetta against the town because he was bitter about losing his job. There were only 500 people in town, and 130 of them were children. There wasn’t anything he could have done that would have had more impact. Cokeville was a very family oriented town. Their kids were everything. They would do anything for them.
LDS Blogs: Was the community as religious as they made it appear? Was the town as sweet as it seemed?
Jennie: TC Christensen covered a lot in the movie. But he couldn’t cover that Cokeville was a spectacular place. It was spectacular before and after the bomb. It’s a really great place full of good people. It’s a 95% LDS community. And those who aren’t LDS or religious are purely stalwart and fabulous. They are just solid people.
The small town spirit is strong there. And the crazy thing is that because people haven’t talked about the bombing, there are some people living there now who had no idea about the story.
I don’t know why we were all spared when others aren’t. But I do know that if that bomb had worked like it was supposed to, and we would have died, there would have been whole families wiped out. The woman in the movie who had left her child in the car had four of her children in the school that day.
I know I needed to live for my family. Not just so I could have my children, but for my parents. In the last few years I’ve lost everyone in my immediate family except my Mom. If I had died that day she would be left alone. My mom’s dad actually picked me up as I ran from the burning school. He died when I was a senior and I was devastated. Then 3 short years later my own father died suddenly at age 41. Again my heart broke. My dad’s father passed away in 2007 and I was close to him as well. All of my grandparents lived in Cokeville. Then another tragedy struck my family as my only brother and sibling passed away in 2009 at the age of 28. I needed to be here for my mom and I need her too!
I needed to survive for many people. I’m happy that families are forever. I hope this movie helps bring back people’s faith. In this world we live in with all the tragedy and craziness we need to be reminded that God is there. And that if we pray, He will hear us. There is real power in prayer.
LDS Blogs: Thank you Jennie. It’s been amazing to talk to you.
Patty thrives on all things creative. You’ll often find her in the garden pretending she is a suburban farmer. She loves meeting new people, and is devoted to her friends and family. In her heart she is a Midwesterner even though life has moved her all over the country. She believes in “blooming where you’re planted” and has found purpose in every place she has been. She has a deep and abiding love for the Savior and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And she loves editing LDS Blogs because it is a constant spiritual uplift. Not many people can say their job builds their witness of the Savior.