Jennie Sorensen

Describe your experience of may 16

There were two 1st Grades at the time. I remember it being a nice, spring day in May and I had just come in from an enjoyable recess. After lunch recess, we were getting ready to settle down for story time. My teacher was combining with the other 1st grade across the hall and they gathered us in our classroom (Room 4). It was always fun to get together and I was especially happy to be altogether that day. We were interrupted by a man (David Young) and his wife (Doris Young) bursting into our 1st grade classroom. She immediately lined up guns along the chalk board. A lot of guns! I had been around hunting rifles all my life due to the fact that we lived in the country and my father hunted every fall so I wasn’t worried at that point. I think I thought, “well this is a weird place for an assembly and that is a weird looking grocery cart!” The entire elementary school started to file into our little classroom until it totaled 154 children and adults. It was pretty quick that I caught on to the fact that this was not an assembly. It just didn’t feel right. All the desks and chairs were moved out of the classroom except for my friend’s desk for the man to sit on with the bomb next to him. Our perpetrator was not nice at all. I remember feeling very scared of him. Time ticked on for what felt like an eternity to a 7 year old. Teachers tried to keep us busy and calm with books, crayons, Legos, and clay, but I remember just wanting to leave. I wondered why the teachers would not want us to leave this evil man and didn’t understand their logic until I was old enough to comprehend the intensity of our situation. It was getting close to time to go home and we were still there, many of us were sick from the fumes that the homemade bomb was putting off. The man was agitated and needed a break. There was a small bathroom connecting the 1st and 2nd grade classrooms that he slipped into. He gave the bomb to his wife and the next thing I remember is the loud boom of the bomb detonating and the heat of the flames. I made my way, crawling, to the small bathroom hallway along with many other friends and teachers that chose that exit. I don’t remember any noises after the bomb went off and now realize I probably couldn’t hear because of the blast. I made it outside and ran like mad. I ran until large hands picked me up and even then I was still kicking. My Grandpa had found me. I didn’t know who had me for a minute until I calmed down. I was finally safe! I watched from my grandparent’s large window that faced the football field as helicopters landed and took off all afternoon. It was and still is a very surreal experience.

What Miracles or tender mercies did you witness?

The whole afternoon was a large miracle encompassed with lots of smaller miracles, but a few miracles that I personally witnessed have been difficult over the years for me to share publicly. I reserved sharing anything, besides with my immediate family and at very safe functions, until the 20th anniversary compilation “A Witness to Miracles” because of potential ridicule from others. I still worry about that a little, but I cannot deny there was one very personal miracle for me that day. In a nutshell, I had a “teacher” help me out of that burning classroom that I did not know at that time. I never said anything to anyone until we were looking through and rearranging some family albums for my Grandma when I was about 11 or 12. I asked what grade this particular woman had taught and why she quit teaching after the bomb. My grandma looked at the picture of her aunt that I was referring to and said she had never been a teacher that she knew of and not in Cokeville. I continued to explain that she was the teacher that led me out when the bomb went off. With tears in her eyes, she explained to me that there is no way she could have been there because she had died earlier in the ‘80s. She also told me that she was extremely close to this aunt. I also tearfully testified that she was there and saved me. It was a comfort to me for many years and I have felt a special bond to my grandma’s aunt. I will always be indebted to her. 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. I tragically lost the very Grandpa that rescued me on May 16th eleven short years later when I was a Senior in high school. I also experienced the loss of my own father in 1999 at the age of 41, his father in 2007 and another loss five years ago in 2009, my only sibling when he was 28 in a tragic car accident. I have felt them all close and love to know they are close, especially my brother.

What have you learned with nearly 30 years of reflection?

I have learned that I regress a lot when there are school shootings and hostage situations because the outcome is not always miraculous. I have learned over the last 30 years that bad things happen to good people because of choices of others. That is uncontrollable, but I have learned that even small miracles can happen when enough faith and prayer is present even if there is unfortunate lives of the innocent taken. We just have to look deep enough to see the miracles, because they are there. Amazing people die every day in situations that aren’t controllable, but if it is not our time, it’s not our time. I have also learned that this event doesn’t define me, but this event helped mold me into the person I am today because of the continual healing I have encountered and the pure miracle of the outcome. I have learned that every time I think I am “healed” completely that I can be unexpectedly taken back again due to triggers. Because of that, I know there will always be continual healing and that if I accept that, I can begin to move forward.

What was your 'ah-ha' moment that helped you pull out of the negative thoughts/PTSD?

I’m not sure that I am completely out of the woods on negative thoughts or PTSD. I think there are always the things that will take me back to that classroom; 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 in May 1986 upon any of the aforementioned triggers. I think that will always be with me. I don’t experience too many panic attacks anymore because I have learned to breathe through the anxiety and focus, but I think the thing that distinctively changed a lot of my PTSD is when I was finding myself at my own children’s elementary school daily when I had 1st 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. This anxiety continued until all 3 of my children reached 2nd grade and then it was like a weight lifted. I am not saying I completely trust what goes on every day, but 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. I knew why, but it was like I couldn’t control it. When my son reached the end of 1st grade, I had the opportunity to tell them all about this traumatic event in my life. Being kids, they were curious. They wanted to get involved as extras in the making of the 2015 film “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 consented and we showed up on set. They had the time of their lives while remaining to be considerate of my feelings. They knew that it was extremely hard for me to be on set, but that has really helped my anxiety to process the events of the day more. Maybe that was the key, they just needed to know for me to feel less anxious. I feel like now they know a lot of the details that they can protect themselves and each other if something like this were to happen to them. I feel normal again and not like a paranoid, creepy stalker mother. I can always rely on my husband to help me out of negative moods and days and just hold me when I have the occasional reoccurring nightmare. He has been my rock. My friends, especially those who experienced the same thing, have been such a support. My family that frantically waited on the outside of that school that day are a huge factor in my progress. All those things together have been my “ah-ha” moments to continually work towards healing.

How did the experience mold you? Were you changed?

Very much the experience molded me. I walked or rather ran out of that 1st grade classroom to never be a carefree elementary student again. I was guarded and very skeptical of adults that I didn’t know. I very much wanted to just be with my family and friends. I clung to my religion and in turn learned so much about what I truly believed because of the miracles I witnessed. I am not quick to trust still today. Yes, I was changed.

Do you feel your perspective/outlook on life is different than others because of the Cokeville experience?

Yes, I believe my perspective on life is different from others because of the 1986 Cokeville Elementary experience. I believe all survivors of any traumatic experience see life differently just due to the mere fact of surviving. I never take for granted every day I get to spend on this Earth with my family. I have always felt a strong bond to all family, immediate and extended. I am all about family reunions and supporting all my family at every function that I am invited to. They are the most dear and precious things to me. I know that it is a blessing in my life to know all of my family and have them so close. I knew I could never move very far away. I want to live every day in thankfulness to my Heavenly Father. I know the purpose I was saved and that purpose calls me MOM!

How do I feel about David and Doris Young?

This is a tough question for me that I don’t quite know how to answer at this point in time. Honestly, there is still a large amount of anger about what they could have taken from me and all of my friends that day and the entire community for that matter. I had thought I had truly forgiven them, until last summer on the set of “The Cokeville Miracle”, and then I knew I needed to work a little harder on that. If I were to see them again, I want to be able to truthfully tell them that I forgive them. I don’t like to think about them because I don’t want to give them any more of my life. I don’t want to bear the burden of hate either, so I know the importance of forgiveness. I will one day, forgive them completely and am working on that.

What do I want people to know about Cokeville?

Cokeville is a spectacular place to me. It is not without it’s small town flaws for sure, but they are small and overcome able. I think because of it being a tiny town, we do have a very special bond that has continued through the years. I loved growing up there. I love that a large portion of my family still lives there. I enjoy going home and will always consider it my home away from home. It is where all my memories of my childhood reside. I would in a heartbeat move my family there because I believe Cokeville pushes the kids in the schools to be great, not just good. It is a powerful community. I am sure a lot of communities throughout the world can make these claims, but I can claim this is my small town and that is all that matters to me. I am grateful to live close enough to run “home” to be with my extended family. Even before May 16, 1986, Cokeville was a special place filled with neat, caring people. I want people to know that Cokeville is not special because of the events that transpired on May 16th, but it is special because of amazing people that love and support each other.

Witness Accounts & Additional Reading Resources

Child Hostage Accounts

Children Hostage Accounts

136 children from pre-school age to 6th Grade were held hostage by David and Doris.

Adult Hostage Accounts

Adult Hostage Accounts

Devoted teachers, parents, a job applicant, and an ill-timed UPS driver composed the adult hostages.

Emergency Response

Emergency Response

Emergency and hospital crews from neighboring towns recount miracles of their own in the aftermath.

More Witness Accounts

More Witness Accounts

Parents and other relatives share their reaction to the events on
May 16, 1986.