When a bomb exploded in a Cokeville, Wyo., elementary school last May, it injured 80 students and teachers, but it helped forge a bond with students 770 miles away in Redondo Beach.
More than 160 students and teachers at the rural Wyoming school were taken hostage by a heavily armed couple who demanded a $300-million ransom.
The siege ended when the woman accidentally set off the bomb. Her husband then shot and killed her and wounded a fleeing teacher before turning the gun on himself. Only the couple was killed, but half a dozen children still wearing burn bandages are constant reminders to the community of the ordeal.
Like thousands of others across the country, children at Birney elementary school in Redondo Beach sent letters to the Cokeville school last spring, saying they were glad the students there had survived the siege. The Birney students also offered to be pen pals.
"It's nice to have friends that you know care about you," said Cokeville fourth-grader Ranelle Dana, expressing the feelings of many of her schoolmates.
The pen-pal program was initiated by Larry Manley, a Redondo Beach crime prevention specialist. Manley portrays Officer McGruff, the crime-fighting dog, and he took a special interest in the Cokeville students, whom he visited this fall to help alleviate some of their lingering fears.
Cokeville students and school officials said Officer McGruff and the pen-pal program have helped the children deal with their trauma. McGruff safety brochures give the children advice on what to do in emergencies, such as a fire, or just being home alone. And the exchange of letters helps the children make new friends, share their thoughts, learn how to express themselves better and learn about another part of the country.
Some Redondo Beach students said they have asked their pen pals about the explosion. One fifth-grade girl wrote: "Did you get injured in the accident? You probably don't want to answer these questions because it is probably horrible to remember so I won't ask you any more questions about it."
But the Cokeville children said they do not mind talking about the siege and the bombing. School librarian Gayle Chadwick, who was a hostage with her two children, speculated that some of the children's fears have receded. "Now it's exciting, then it was scary," Chadwick said. But, she added, "Sometimes I think they get scared when the power goes off or when the fire alarm goes off."
Some of the Cokeville children said in telephone interviews that they are still afraid the drama of last May will be repeated. "I'm afraid that somebody might go nuts and come back," said fourth-grader Hium James (H.J.) Esterholdt. "I know that there are still some people that are nuts out there."
Students Still Fearful
Cokeville Police Chief Cal Fredrickson said the students are "still concerned about strangers and, probably, a lot of them are going to be that way the rest of their lives. . . . I still get calls if somebody comes around the school that nobody knows."
Those reports have decreased over the months and usually the strangers turned out to be curious tourists, he said.
Some Birney students said they are afraid that a similar incident will happen at their school. "When I see a stranger go in the cafeteria, I don't want to go in there," said sixth-grader Brian Revelle. Others said they sometimes wonder if visitors are parents or people who should not be there.
Students at both schools said they know the Cokeville siege could have happened anywhere.
Cokeville sixth-grader Amy Bagasl, who was burned on her neck, face, hands and legs in the explosion, said she believes that her school is safe but "sometimes I have to remind myself. Sometimes I'm not sure if I'm safe or not because of what happened."
And sometimes, she added, she is afraid to go to school.
Fears like hers prompted the school district and the Cokeville Police Department to bring Manley to town in his role as crime fighter.
After the siege, Manley immediately put together a package of McGruff items--a doll, pins, pencils, bookmarks and safety brochures--and sent it to Cokeville to help ease the children's anxieties. The first letters from Birney students also were in that package.
But by the time the package arrived, school had been released for the summer. The children's letters were circulated in the community, but officials had planned to keep the McGruff package until school resumed again in the fall.
During the summer, Manley appeared as Officer McGruff on the TV show "Webster," and Cokeville officials were so impressed that they asked Manley to visit, Fredrickson said.