Monday, June 23, 2014

A Life-Changing Event

When I was 11 years old, I experienced a terrifying event that changed my life forever. The truth is, it changed me forever. I didn't realize until just recently how significant this incident has really been in shaping my life--my values and priorities and beliefs--until I had a unique opportunity to relive it in an extraordinary way this past week.

Why on earth would I want to relive a terrifying event, you might ask? It's a valid question, and one I posed to myself a few times, I must admit, but in the end, I experienced some of the sweetest, most meaningful moments with my children and husband--and with other survivors, too--that I've ever experienced, and I wouldn't trade those moments for anything.

On May 16, 1986 our elementary school in the small rural town of Cokeville, Wyoming was held hostage by a man and his wife, who gathered the whole school into one classroom and held us captive with a bomb for nearly three hours. He demanded $2 million for each person in the room. There were 154 of us in all, including students, teachers, a couple of parents, a UPS driver and even a kindergarten job interviewee. His plan was to collect the money, blow us all up and then rule us in what he called a "brave new world." We were in a very serious predicament because this guy never planned on leaving that classroom alive, which meant he didn't care to negotiate. What made our situation even more grave was that he had a string attached from his wrist to the bomb so that if anything happened to him and that string was pulled, the bomb would detonate. It looked like there was no way we were ever going to survive or live to see another day.

This is a replica of the bomb--it looked very much like this. 

That's when a miracle happened. Not just one miracle--but a series of miracles. Angels entered the classroom, surrounded the bomb right before that string was accidentally pulled, and forced the blast upward, instead of outward. All 154 people made it out alive. Although many children were burned or treated for smoke inhalation, only our captors lost their lives that day. It was an impossible outcome.

Of course this incident left many scars, some physical but most emotional. It's just not easy to recover from the trauma of someone threatening for three long hours to take away your life with a shopping cart full of explosives. Every time you close your eyes, you see this man's evil grin; you see the line of rifles and guns along the wall under the chalkboard; you see the details of the homemade bomb; you smell the gasoline; and you feel the gut wrenching fear that your life seems to be in the hands of a mad man, and it's pretty hard to recover from. For some, it would take months and years; for others, much longer.

That's what leads me to this past week. Actually, I guess I had better start a little earlier than that. This past summer we hard news that the film director T.C. Christensen (director of 17 Miracles and Ephraim's Rescue) was thinking of making a film about this event. Some survivors were not happy about this news, while others of us felt hopeful this would be an opportunity to tell the story in the right way and share the miracles of that day. We even thought perhaps it would be an avenue of healing for those who were still struggling with deep emotional scars.

In an effort to reach out to survivors and their families, T.C. and his producer, Ron Tanner, did something extraordinary, something I've never known to be done in the film industry before--they invited the children or grandchildren of the survivors to be extras in the film. Their hope was to involve anyone who wanted to be involved and to reach out in empathy and compassion to those who had gone through this ordeal all those years ago. It was a remarkable invitation.

T.C. Christensen, photo by Sally Meyer

At first I wondered how much our family should be involved. There were the obvious reasons, of course, the first being that the film would be very scary and I wondered how my young children would feel being in scenes that replayed such a terrifying event. But, I also worried about how other survivors who are still struggling with coping with the after-effects of that day would feel about my children being in the limelight (even though they were just extras, not main characters) in a movie that would be difficult for them to watch, if they chose to watch it at all. I didn't want them to misunderstand my intentions or the fact that my heart has deep empathy for the pain they still suffer, even though I have healed in most ways. In the end, I decided to present the opportunity to my children and allow them to choose. I was surprised when they all whole-heatedly wanted to participate.

photo by Sally Meyer

photo by Sally Meyer

photo by Sally Meyer

Regyn and Boston had the most opportunity to be involved because they are the right age--seven and nine. I realized at one point that Boston is exactly the age my little brother was when we were in that school together all those years ago. When a teacher was shoving him through a window in one of the scenes, saying, "It's going to be OK. Come to me!", my throat caught in my chest and I had to choke back tears, realizing that's just what had happened.

photo by Sally Meyer
That wasn't the only scene that caught me off guard. Both Regyn and Boston were in multiple scenes that brought back vivid memories of that day: when the lady walked around to each classroom, telling us to go to the 1st grade classroom because there was a surprise there; when the man shoots his wife, who is on fire after the bomb explodes right in front of her; when the children are fleeing the school after the bomb explodes.

photo by Sally Meyer
There were times it was almost too difficult to watch. The emotions of that day would return in a flash and catch me completely off guard, and I would find myself glancing over to my children, wondering if they felt even a tinge of what I was feeling, worried this might be too much for them. Unbelievably, it never was. They seemed to be able to capture the solemnity of the event, without internalizing the fear and terror.

photo by Sally Meyer

I really wondered if Boston was mature enough to handle 12 hours a day filming, especially such mature scenes. He did amazing! Some of the other children lost their edge at times and had to be asked to leave, but he was always following directions and staying focused. He looks so serious in these photos. I wish I could have a window to his soul and know what he was thinking.

photo by Sally Meyer

photo by Sally Meyer

This is in between "takes" when the children are all lying on the ground because the bomb has just gone off. Regyn thought it was pretty cool that they had to mess up her braids and put fake scrapes on her and fake ash. It's always the little things.:)

photo by Sally Meyer

photo by Sally Meyer

This is one of the only times Regyn actually came out of character to give a thumbs up. When she was acting in a scene, she kept true to the part she was playing the whole time. When she was interviewed by a reporter, she told the reporter she liked to pretend she was me going through the event. That was very touching to me.

photo by Sally Meyer

Regyn and Boston also made some very dear friends during the week. Regyn was thrilled to meet some of the children who acted in Christmas Oranges and Christmas For a Dollar. They hit it off immediately, and she felt like a true movie star!:)

Boston did one scene over so many times, he felt a huge connection to the woman playing his protector in the scene, helping him escape out of the building. This woman just happens to be from Cokeville herself, and it was so sweet how they connected with each other.

The film crew was also very friendly and so great to work with. This guy, Bob Conder, was always so funny and easy-going. The kids loved him!

After one very long day of filming, they decided to film the high school scene. Hallee and Nate were in this one, and it was a very special experience, one I hope none of us ever forget. They actually pulled me into this scene as well. It's not a very long scene, but it's an important one. The high school principal comes into the gymnasium where the whole school is gathered, tells everyone they aren't allowed on elementary school grounds but there is something they can do. Then she says she may get fired for this, but whoever wants to can join her in a prayer. That's when everyone in the entire gym kneels to pray. So simple, but so powerful. When the scene was finished, there was not a dry eye in the whole room, including the crew and the parents watching. I only wish I had pictures, but since I was in the scene, I couldn't take any.

I talked with my children after this experience, hoping they felt something special. After all, we had all had to pretend our siblings or children were being held hostage in an elementary school and we were praying they would be saved. They both said how special it was to be there and do that. I hope they never forget it. I work constantly as a mother to help my children understand how important it is to treat each other like today is their last day. I've told them, "You just never know what could happen, so you have to love each other like you may never see each other again. Forgive each other, be patient with each other, be kind to each other, because you're so lucky to have each other." I hoped this experience helped them internalize that even more and realize how heartbroken they really would be if they lost one of their siblings.

Friday was another unique experience. Everyone from Cokeville was invited to come to be in a scene. Very few actually responded, but I think those who came were glad they did. We had to pretend we were the townspeople and had just found out about the hostage situation. We gathered outside the school, comforting each other and asking questions. Dan and I were in these scenes together, and it was neat to do that with him. The last scene of the day, we were asked to simply hold each other and cry as we would if this had actually happened. They were filming each set of people individually so the filming lasted about four minutes, which is a very long time to think about a tragedy and cry and not look at the camera. It was a poignant experience for me now that I am a mother of five children (which is what my mother was at the time) to stand there with my husband and hold each other, crying and praying as if our own children were inside an elementary school being held hostage. All kinds of emotions swept through me during those four minutes. I was so glad Dan was there to hold me.

By the end of the week, I was physically and especially emotionally exhausted, but mostly, I was so grateful for what our family had experienced together. A newspaper reporter from the Salt Lake Tribune had interviewed me, along with a couple of other survivors, asking us why we would ever put our children through what we had gone through. It was difficult to explain, but I loved what Kamron Wixom, another survivor said. It was something like, "Sometimes you have to feel the fear and the other bad emotions to appreciate and understand the blessings and the miracles."

Here is a picture of Kamron. He had a chance to play a paramedic in the movie.
By the way, another amazing part of the week was reconnecting with other survivors. Many of these people I have not kept in close contact with over the past 28 years. We've all moved on with our lives and not kept in touch, but when we saw each other again and began to talk, it was a pretty incredible experience. I think when you go through a life-changing experience with people, you are always connected with them in a special way, regardless of other differences. I truly love these people and feel honored to be numbered as one of them.

Here are just a few that came, with their children (photo by Sally Meyer).
As fate would have it, I had agreed to speak at a Youth Conference fireside in Taylorsville, UT about miracles, sharing the events of May 16th, just yesterday, two days after the filming. I have spoken at firesides many times over the years, but it was a unique experience to speak when I felt like I had just relived the incident over the past week. The other rare opportunity was that I was speaking with George Throckmorton, a man who had worked as the lead Forensic Investigator in the Western U.S. for forty years, solving high profile cases, such as the Mark Hoffman case during that time. He had simply heard of the Cokeville incident a few years after it had occurred and when he found out the facts, he couldn't believe what had happened. Being a forensic expert, he was fascinated by the aspects of the bomb and how it didn't blow up and kill us all, so he began doing firesides about it.

Unfortunately, Nate took this picture and seems to have missed the main focus:)
 It never ceases to amaze me that no matter how many times I share the story of what happened that day so many years ago, there is something so special about it. People are drawn to it because it is a story of hope and faith and miracles--and it really happened! I know it is still hard for some survivors to talk about--or even think about--but I hope that will change some day. I hope they too can arrive at a point where they feel peace, where the events of that day won't haunt them anymore, and where they can feel, as I do, immense gratitude and happiness for their lives and all the good that has happened since then. I know it doesn't happen overnight, but one day at a time. Maybe this movie will be one step in the healing process for some. That is my hope.

I know that for me, it added another layer of healing to my own soul, healing I didn't even know I needed. It also reminded me once again of how much I have to be grateful for--my life and my family and so much more. I guess that's why to me, this story is one the world needs to hear. It's a story that reminds us that God is real and that He answers the prayers of His children and that angels do help to rescue us when we need it.

I remember praying earnestly to God in that classroom that day, pleading for Him to save us, and promising Him that I would do my best to follow Him if He did. I have certainly made tons of mistakes since that promise, but I've never forgotten it. It has been a driving force in my life, constantly reminding me of what really matters, especially at times when the world seems to get me a little sidetracked. That's why May 16th, 1986 changed me forever--because I realized my life was not my own and that I owed everything to God who saved us that day.

I think Nate may have summed it up best in his journal entry he wrote just tonight and shared with me:
"My mom did a great job at the fireside and helped me realize that I am a miracle, she is a miracle, my whole family is a miracle because of what happened that day on May 16, 1986."


Tiffany said...

Very, very cool. I look forward to seeing the movie. You are such a wise, wonderful woman. I am so happy I know you. Let's do lunch at the park with kids this summer. xx