Third grade student Rachel Walker Hollibaugh on the 1986 Bombing of Cokeville Elementary School
Third grade student Rachel Walker Hollibaugh on the 1986 Bombing of Cokeville Elementary School
The Cokeville hostage crisis began the afternoon of May 16, 1986, when David and Doris Young took 154 children and adults hostage at the Cokeville Elementary School in tiny Cokeville, Wyo. After a stand-off lasting two and a half hours, the gasoline bomb the couple had brought into the school went off prematurely, badly burning Doris Young while David Young was out of the room. Returning, David Young shot his wife, then himself. All the hostages escaped, though 79 were hospitalized with burns and injuries. Young was a former Cokeville town marshal who had been living in Arizona for several years.
Transcriber's notes: I have added some reference footnotes to this transcript where I thought appropriate. In most cases I have deleted redundant ands, ers, uhs, buts, false starts, etc. If I deleted an entire phrase, I have inserted ellipses ... Where you find brackets [ ] I have added words for explanation or to complete an awkward sentence. Parentheses ( ) are used for incidental non-verbal sounds, like laughter. Words emphasized by the speaker are italicized.
~Transcriber Russ Sherwin, December 4, 2010
Mark Junge: Today is the 22nd of September, 2010. My name is Mark Junge, and I'm in the home of Charlotte Freeman. We're sitting here at the dining table. To my left is Sue Castaneda who is the head of the Wyoming Oral History Project, and straight facing me is Rachel Walker, who is a third-grade survivor of the Cokeville bombing incident.
Rachel Walker: My name is Rachel Walker. I was a third grade student on May 16, 1986. The first thing that I remember about that day was coming in from recess and this really weird smell. I was with three of my best friends at that time and one of my friends actually got sick and asked to go home. There was something very strong that I remember, because she did go home. Come to find out that was actually gas that they had poured down the hallway. Gas is a very strong smell and I've had to work to get over that—kinda catch myself going, "Ooh, I don't like that smell!" You know? Because that triggers memories.
That was the first thing that always comes to my mind is that gas smell. The next thing I remember is just being—my third grade teacher was going to a game, so he was getting ready to leave, and Mrs. Bennion was our teacher that day. We went into our classroom, right next door to the room that they took us in. I remember seeing guns, and kinda going, "Okay, what's going on?"
Mark Junge: Do you remember what you were wearing that day? You said you could remember a lot of individual things.
Rachel Walker: Yes. I was wearing red overalls. I actually have a picture with my Grampa in those red overalls, and when I saw it I told my mom, "Mom, I don't like that picture. Those were the overalls that I was wearing. Where are they?" I was burned, so they got thrown away. But since I've seen that picture now, I think of those red overalls and that picture comes. Which is interesting, because I've gone beyond to know the positive stuff from that experience. But so, yes, I was wearing red overalls.
Mark Junge: You didn't know what was happening, did you? When you saw all the guns and everything? You were just sort of oblivious to what was going on?
Rachel Walker: Yeah, I was a third-grader, you know. Your teacher says to go to a room, you do what they say. You go, and say, okay, what's next kind of a thing.
Mark Junge: What were your first memories coming into the room?
Rachel Walker: I remember seeing guns. And I don't even know what kind of guns, 'cause I'm not a gun person. I remember that, and I remember thinking there were other kids in there and wondering why we didn't go to the auditorium; why we were in a small room. And just kinda the feeling of waiting, saying, what are we kinda doing here? But not really—I would have been 8 years old—well, I would have been 9. In May I would have been 9, and just kind of thinking, "Why are we in this room when the auditorium or the gym is just down the — why did they put all of us in this room?
Mark Junge: So what were your memories of what David and Doris looked like?
Rachel Walker: I don't—I remember a little bit of her hair, that it was longer, but I don't remember a lot of her. David Young, I remember a beard, and that's kind of stayed with me. I'm like, "Hon, shave, please!" to my husband. I don't like the face hair. Well, you're fine. And the funny part of it, my husband's dad is stuck in the 70s; long hair and a beard. So I've had to get over that. It's one of those things where I catch myself saying, "I don't like that!" And then after I think about it say, "Oh, that's why I don't like that." Not meaning to offend someone. Not meaning to — just kinda being, "Oh, I'm sorry I said that!"
Mark Junge: Mm-hm. Are your memories like, do you think linearly, I mean, can you remember one incident to the next, you just kinda like have this collage of images?
Rachel Walker: I know kind of what happens next. I remember looking at David Young and feeling him kinda get agitated and us kinda feeling—I remember feeling like, nothing's happening. What are we doing? What's going on? And I think probably because the teachers knew what was going on, I think that it kinda—you know, when your kids—when you're agitated, your kids feel it? I think that kinda was some stuff going on. Right now, I can't remember, and I don't know if I've said it, but I remember someone saying, "Let's have a prayer. Let's say a prayer so that we feel better." So I remember looking at one of my friends, saying a prayer in a circle, all of us getting in a circle and saying a prayer, and just the peace that I felt doing that. Not very long after the prayer, my brother came and got my sister and I and said, "You need to go over by the window. Go closer to the window, please."
I remember looking this way, and seeing one of my friends watching TV, and then kinda turning my head this way, and when I look back on this, it felt like the most normal thing in the world. But somewhere in the process of that, he [David] had made a square around himself, because he was getting agitated, or whatever. I remember that square, and after I looked at my friend and looked that way, there was a lady standing. She seemed very comfortable to me. I felt like I knew her. As I looked, all the way around that square were angels, were people, all the way around that. And I went back to that face that I knew, and in her hands were two babies, and some younger children around her. And it felt very normal.
I believe that my spirit recognized her, and recognized what needed to be felt at that time. It has taken me a couple years to understand that, because angels aren't babies, but to my spirit, that's what I needed to see. And I've come to realize my belief is that they were my children, telling me, "You're gonna be okay, Mom."
Mark Junge: Now some people might interpret your seeing angels as being, "Well, she had a very traumatic experience, she was agitated, she's blocked some of this out and supplanted it maybe with something spiritual. She couldn't have really seen angels."
Rachel Walker: My spirit says I did. And whether someone else believes me or not, I believe it.
That's all that needs to be said. There wasn't an agitation there. I believe that when we said our prayers, that the Lord sent a comforter to give us comfort. Because I wasn't upset then. I wasn't scared, I wasn't scared of them, and at that time they were around the square. I wasn't even scared of David Young, because they were there protecting me. That was one of the things—for a while I didn't share my story because I felt like, why do I need to share to the people who are negative. Why do I need to share—I've come to realize for me to know is more important, that I can't deny what I saw, and if they don't believe me, Oh Well!
Mark Junge: What did these angels look like? Can you say?
Rachel Walker: The one that I remember the most of course is who I found out is my Grandma.
And I just remember her being in white. A little bit above the ground, but not anything—not clear up so it was a—just kind of there. White. Just brilliant white.
Sue Castaneda: Just more like a person than angel?
Rachel Walker: Yeah, there was no wings, there was no—and just a comfort in seeing her.
Mark Junge: What did the others look like?
Rachel Walker: Um, I feel like they were more of a support to her, so she wasn't—she was more my main focus. They were there protecting me, but to think about, like their faces or something like that, I can't pinpoint certain things about them except for my six children. Or who I felt like —the spirit—yes. I remember the kids that she was holding, the younger kids, were boys. And that bothered me for a while, 'cause here I was having all girls. But as you can see, I have four girls and then my two other youngest.
Mark Junge: Well, maybe you can't remember their faces or the figure of these people because it was more of a feeling than a photographic image.
Rachel Walker: It could be. She was there and I felt protected. I felt like, "Oh. Well they're here. We're fine. Everything's okay."
Mark Junge: And then everything went okay after that for a while?
Rachel Walker: I was at a table by the window and was coloring, and the next thing that I remember I had turned to Mrs. Bennion and asked for a piece of paper or another coloring sheet, and right then the bomb went off. I remember hot! I have scars on my arms still, and I believe that's from the paper, actually. When the bomb went off it engulfed that paper. So I have scars that I'm aware of, but people—so that's the next thing that I remember. And I remember the gun shots. Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! And just kinda going, what's going on kinda thing. I remember looking towards the third grade room, and the lady [Doris] was on fire. I remember seeing her on fire.
Mark Junge: She was a ball of flame or what?
Rachel Walker: Yeah, just kinda seeing just—her just on fire. Almost looked kinda like piece of—I don't know. She didn't even look real. It was just like this thing of fire and she was right by the door going out of the room.
Mark Junge: David Young wasn't in the room at that time?
Rachel Walker: No. and I don't know why she was over there. I don't know. I remember being pushed out the window, and I remember seeing Mr. Moore, who's the fifth grade teacher, and feeling like, oh, he's okay, I'm okay, kind of a thing. Things get kind of fuzzy for a little bit after that. I know I met up with my brother and my sister. I remember being in Mrs. Taylor's house, and I went into shock. They'd put some bandages on my arms and I remember going into shock after that. The shaky—you know, the shaky feeling?
Sue Castaneda: Had you seen your mom and dad before that at that point before you went to the Taylorses house?
Rachel Walker: Well, you know we talked about how things are kind of jumbled a little bit? I know I had to have. But I don't know where that is in the whole thing. I wish I could say, but there's things that are kind of—
Mark Junge: Is that just you, or do you think that was caused by the incident, the way things jump around?
Rachel Walker: I think that was maybe things, other things I've had to search in my mind, look for some answers to. Having my parents and the emergency people, I can see them probably looking for me pretty strongly. And there's things that I've talked about with them that they have talked about, but I want to tell you what I remember and not get theirs jumbled with it.
Mark Junge: Well, everybody's perspective in that room is different. Everybody! There's no two that are alike.
Rachel Walker: Well and you know, I've talked to my sister and she still has very negative—very—she still has nightmares after. And if she, sitting here like this just talking about it, she'll have nightmares for weeks after.
Mark Junge: You won't though?
Rachel Walker: I won't. I remember talking to someone else that I believe has had an interview, and I said, "Hon, we were saved. It was a positive thing!" And she goes, "No, I'm very angry still." I have felt that I've moved through that angry part because I've asked the question, "Why did I go through this? What did I learn from this experience?" And I've learned that I'm never alone, and that I can pray. I've tried to portray that. And I feel bad for those that have those angry feelings. Because you don't have to have them. Because we were—what a positive thing. It was a terrible thing to have happen, but what a miracle it was that the only two people hurt were those two.
Mark Junge: Was this because—you felt this way because—you felt differently obviously from your sister—is it because of your own personality or because of the way you deliberately worked things out?
Rachel Walker: Probably because I deliberately worked things out. I refer to it in the book, but when my daughter was very sick at the hospital, I was very angry then. I'm like, "Okay, I have went through a bombing! Why am I having to do this?" And through—I'm going to say the Lord, is who I feel like it is—his help, I was able to look at those at a different angle and say, okay. Even though I went through bad things, I was never alone. I went through a terrible thing of a bombing, I'm here at Primary Childrens' with a daughter who is struggling for her life, but I'm not alone. And that made all the difference. That made that peace come to me that I was like, oh! Okay, yeah, I still have to go through trials. I still have negative things, but I don't have to go through 'em alone!
Mark Junge: That's a beautiful statement.
Rachel Walker: So, I did talk to my sister yesterday, and she said, "For me to go on with my life, I have to leave it in the past and not think about it." And that's how she can do it.
Mark Junge: That's how she deals with it.
Rachel Walker: Mm-hm. But I can talk about it and not have the negative.
Mark Junge: Do your feelings partly come from the fact that this is a close-knit community and you've got a close-knit family, and that you are able to recover a little easier because you are tight?
Rachel Walker: I believe so. I think the experience we went through knit us so close together.
Those people that we bonded with after that are still some of my best friends. I think living here and knowing that a lot of people already know what went on, that there isn't that scare part of it. That I can say, "It was a miracle, guys." I think religion has a big thing to do with it, because even people that were atheist at that time, were able to find peace through religion. I grew up LDS, Latter Day Saint, [The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormon] and have strong, strong values. When they said, let's say a prayer, even though they've taken that out of school, we felt okay doing it. And we did. And that peace that came from that, it knit us together. It made us a stronger community.
Mark Junge: When you get beyond the individual event for yourself, and your friends and your family and the community, do you think there's any significance to this thing historically? The bombing? I mean, do you look at it in a wider perspective? Was there any significance to it or was it just an occurrence that allowed the spirit to work or God to work through human beings?
Rachel Walker: Um, let me rephrase so I understand what you're saying. Other than in this town of Cokeville, is there any significance?
Mark Junge: Yeah, you said you learned how to pray, and you learned how to be positive. What could anybody like Sue or me learn from this experience?
Rachel Walker: I believe that if there's other things that happen, if there's other trials for anyone,
for you, for someone clear in New York, or San Francisco—’cause we were talking about those areas—if they are searching for if there's a God out there, this is a prime example. There was a tragedy but he was there and he saved us.
Mark Junge: You weren't the only one that saw angels, there were others. Have you talked to those people?
Rachel Walker: Do you know what's kind of funny about it? I've talked to them about like, "Oh, hi, how are you?" We kind of have the same story, but other than that, we let the interviewers get down in the deep of it. Does that make sense? (Laughs) it's like, if you want to, you can—you know, I know some people that you're interviewing today, I don't know if I can say their name—can I say the Hartleys? They did. They've drawn pictures and stuff like that. When I saw the angel, like I said, I think my spirit recognized that I knew her, but we kept on telling my mom, we saw this lady! We saw her! And it wasn't until Hartt Wixsom was doing the interview and my mom got a picture out of her mom and my sister and I were like, "Oh my goodness! That's her! That is her!" And what a relief, what an awesome relationship I have through her now, because, my mom, that was one thing that was hard on my mom is that her mother died when she was younger. But—I already told her this today—"Mom! I know your mom! I feel comfortable with her."
Mark Junge: But you hadn't seen a picture of her?
Rachel Walker: I hadn't seen a picture of her until then. You know, it wasn't something—my mom, it was a very sad thing for her that her mom had died. We didn't have pictures in our home of her. Her mom had her picture in a locket.
Mark Junge: Had you seen that?
Rachel Walker: No.
Mark Junge: So do you think it's a fair statement, Rachel, to say that you were strengthened by this rather then weakened by this incident?
Rachel Walker: Yes.
Mark Junge: Do you?
Rachel Walker: Yes. Because I—what a great testimony of prayer. Would I have had that testimony? I don't think as strongly as I do now. That wouldn't have been one of the first things that I taught my children. I hope I would have, being raised in a church, that I would have, but I feel a very strong responsibility to teach my children that.
Mark Junge: So have you told 'em the story?
Rachel Walker: I have, yes. I have talked to all of my children—not my baby—but all of my children are aware of the story. How in depth I go is different for each child. My 13-year-old definitely knows more than my 8-year-old. Because just like it took me a journey to the things that I needed to learn through that, I feel like they kind of need to know too. And I feel like my 13-year-old knows the whole story, and she knows because she was ready for it. There comes a time when they're ready for it, whereas my 8-year-old boy, he's still go-lucky, he hasn't had something really, really sad happen where I've had to say, "You're not alone. Listen to my story."
Mark Junge: How do they react to that? Just a story?
Rachel Walker: My Kaitlin is like—my 13-year-old—is—it's interesting, because here in Cokeville they hear about it at school sometimes. And I think it's a process for them to go through, too. But when I did talk to her, she was just like, "Mom!" There was that awe of, "Oh, cool! Okay, Mom. I'm not alone! Okay!" There is, if I remember the incident correctly, it buoyed here up. It made her feel like, "Okay, I can do this now! I can handle this because you went through something a lot worse than this, and you're okay! So I can do this now."
Mark Junge: You don't dwell on it with your kids —
Rachel Walker: No.
Rachel Walker: —but they know it's there and they know it happened.
Rachel Walker: And they know if they want to ask questions they can. I remember being somewhere outside of town or somewhere, and my kids asked me a question, and me saying, "You know what, girls? I will talk to you, but I want to be able to listen to exactly what you're saying to me, and I'm distracted right now, and I can't talk to you about it." Because, that calming spirit, I want to be there with them. I want them to be able to say, "Feel that breath of fresh air." And I feel like sometimes in the hubbub of going in a grocery store or Walmart or whatever, the focus isn't there. I could say something and it wouldn't mean what it needs to be.
Mark Junge: The way you would like it to be for them.
Rachel Walker: Yes. And I say, "Okay, I'll talk to you about it later. If you still have this question later, let's talk about it later.
Mark Junge: Do they come back to you then?
Rachel Walker: Yes.
Mark Junge: And you oblige them by telling them?
Rachel Walker: Yes.
Mark Junge: Good for you! You're a strong person!
Rachel Walker: You know what? You go day by day! (Laughs) You do! You do this day by day stuff, you know. You have to.
Mark Junge: Yeah. What's your assessment of Doris and David Young? How do you look at these two people now?
Rachel Walker: Um, I feel bad for 'em. There's that empathy there that's going, "You must have really had some problems!" I think—I really—I can't remember, and my mom would probably know more date-wise, but we actually went to his home town and talked to David Young's home town. It's past Soda Springs, Idaho. I don't know if it's his home town or where he lived just before the bombing. You might need to get some—but we went there and talked to them. And that was also a changing point for me. And I think that empathy—not sympathy, 'cause I still think, why in the heck? But an empathy saying, "You must have really had some problems."
You know? Who does that kind of stuff?! And feel like it's justified enough to feel like it's okay to do it?
Mark Junge: Well, thinking about 'em, what do you think drove them to do this?
Rachel Walker: I felt some way he felt justified in his mind, and I'd read accounts where they said he felt like he was doing us a favor by taking us away from Cokeville, which was a bad town. Somewhere in his mind he had justified that. I don't know.
Mark Junge: But this changed your life, you said. This helped to change your attitude. How so?
Rachel Walker: Because before that, I was one that never talked at all. You wouldn't have got me to sit down with you. But I went there and there was a release there. My sister and I sang the song, and we changed the words so—plagiarizing, sorry, we did—to I believe there are angels among us. And we changed the words that said, "One day in May—" You know, we changed the words to depict what happened that day. And instead of, "I believe there are angels among us," we sang, "I KNOW there are angels among us." That was a changing point for me.
Mark Junge: Do you have to do this very often? Get up in front of people and testify?
Rachel Walker: I can testify that I know I'm not alone, and still have the impact, without—
Mark Junge: Getting into the details?
Rachel Walker: Yeah!
Mark Junge: Yeah. Do you talk it over with your parents at all? They were both involved.
Rachel Walker: There are times when it comes up. There are times—we have recently had a couple of deaths in town. There are things like this that make us reflect. That make us think, we are so blessed. We are not alone.
Mark Junge: Has this made you a more spiritual person, do you think?
Rachel Walker: Oh, definitely! Definitely! I can't deny what I saw. I can't deny what went on in that room. I cannot deny that I saw those—or some—like you say, you feel that maybe there are? I KNOW! What a testimony that is to me. If you only knew that, I KNOW that. I KNOW that my Grandma Ruth watches over me. I know that she knows each one of my kids individually.
Sue Castaneda: Do you have a fear of death?
Rachel Walker: No. No, and another thing that I was telling my mom today, looking at a casket, I don't even like to look at 'em. Because to me, that's not what they look like. They are up there, happy, they are—and she said, "Well, don't you need to say goodbye to them?" And I told my mom, "No. Because they're just over there. They're doing other things that need to be done. They're in a different area." So I don't see 'em—I don't see someone laying dead in a casket.
Mark Junge: You made a statement about how you can relate to people “beyond the veil; behind the veil.” How do you feel? Is this a large family for you, both the deceased and the living? Is there a bridge in your mind?
Rachel Walker: I believe there is. This isn't the last time I'll see family. I feel like—you know, you asked about the spiritual stuff? I believe that I have seen others. I have seen my other grandma on my Dad's side holding my babies after they've been born. I have seen some amazing things! I think we're all connected. Those ancestors that have gone on still are a very part of my life. Still giving me support.
Mark Junge: So this is not scary to you?
Rachel Walker: No, it's not scary to me.
Mark Junge: It's an uplifting experience?
Rachel Walker: Yeah.
Mark Junge: So you're very lucky compared to some of the kids.
Rachel Walker: Yeah. Well, and I am very lucky compared to some kids. And I'm not—death still is a sad thing. I would hate to leave my kids if anything should happen to me. But I know that the work will still go on whether I'm here or on the other side of the veil. And to me the veil is with my ancestors who have gone, who have already died.
Mark Junge: And you're assured, and you take joy in the fact that you're assured of being a big family again.
Rachel Walker: Yes.
Mark Junge: That's the LDS belief?
Rachel Walker: Yes. In the LDS belief, we came here as a family. We knew them before we came down to earth, and we will meet up with them again and we can be an eternal family. And eternal to me means forever. I can go and be with my grandma and be with her forever. I can be with my grandpa. Yeah, I had experiences here with them and it just doesn't end. I can be with them again.
Mark Junge: What a great feeling! Thank you.
Rachel Walker: I'm not one of the emotional ones 'cause I think there's things that I've learned. There's different steps that I have gone through.
Mark Junge: Just for the record, what are your kids names and how old are they again? We went through this before we went on tape.
Rachel Walker: Right. Kaitlin Tinnel is a girl, she's 13. I have a Mary Elizabeth who goes by Lizzie, who's 11. Tiffany Anne is 10, she's one of my twins. Tennessa Jeanette is 10, which is also a twin. An 8-year-old boy named Jake, and a 2-year-old son named Jason.
Mark Junge: You have any budding geniuses in the family?
Rachel Walker: Of course! They all are! (Laughs) They're all gonna be amazing!
Mark Junge: They're gonna love this statement too, aren't they? Somewhere down the road?
Rachel Walker: Kaitlin's like—they have a church camp that they go to this summer, and she informed me that she's not going to date until she has two years of college behind her.
Sue Castaneda: Date?!
Rachel Walker: Yes! I said, "Well, I'm excited to see that." Because, she says, they'll mess up her education. So this is from a 13-year-old, so we'll see!
Mark Junge: Yeah. You want to remind her on that first date.
Rachel Walker: Oh, I have this on tape that you said this! (Laughs) Yeah, she's beautiful.
Sue Castaneda: Did you marry a guy who was also in the mountains?
Rachel Walker: I didn't. But he knew us before. He had lived here in Cokeville and moved away.
Mark Junge: What's his name?
Rachel Walker: Cody Hollibaugh.
Mark Junge: Cody Hollibaugh. What does he do?
Rachel Walker: He works for Exxon Mobil.
Mark Junge: Oh. At the Shute Creek Plant?
Rachel Walker: Yes.
Mark Junge: Really! Oh, wow! And you knew him before?
Rachel Walker: Yeah, he actually had lived here in Cokeville and moved away I think probably in '84. He'd probably know better about that. But he had moved away. So some of our courtship was him going through all of these feelings saying, "Oh, my goodness! You're still alive?" 'Cause he had went through them as a child and then we started dating and, "Oh, my goodness! I remember this, Rachel!" So some of that was in our courtship.
Mark Junge: Did you court him or did he court you?
Rachel Walker: You know what? I was talking about this the other day. We were like in a fairy tale. It was like boom! We're in love; end of story! It was like a bolt!
Mark Junge: That happens to a lot of people. See that's what I was trying to say, Sue, the other day to these other people that it's just love at first sight. You think, arrrrrrgh, you know. But there's some pheromones or some invisible things that are going.
Rachel Walker: Ours was kind of interesting. We did it for two months, then my husband went on a mission for the church for two years, so that was just writing letters back and forth. Then he came home and two months later we were married.
Mark Junge: In the Temple? At Salt Lake?
Rachel Walker: Yes. Logan.
Mark Junge: Is there a difference between being married in Logan or Manti and Salt Lake?
Rachel Walker: I think it's just what temple you feel like. They all can seal for time and all
eternity instead of just 'till death do you part.
Mark Junge: Okay. Thanks again, Rachel. Thank you for your testimony, which is what it is.
Recording and transcription by Wyoming State Archives. Used with permission and thanks.
The photo of Rachel Walker Hollibaugh is by Wyoming State Archives. Used with permission and thanks.
This oral history collection is titled “Survivor Is My Name” and features remembrances of the Cokeville, Wyo., Elementary School bombing of May 16, 1986. It is produced for the Wyoming State Archives by Sue Castaneda. The interviewer is Wyoming Historian Mark Junge. The entire project is funded by the Wyoming Cultural Trust Fund. No part of this audio recording or transcript may be reproduced in full or in part without written permission of the Wyoming State Archives.