After the 1999 tragedy that killed twelve Aggies, Texas A&M wanted to extinguish its annual Bonfire. Good luck.
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THE OAK TREE, WHICH A FEW TEXAS A&M students had been chipping away at with an ax for hours, finally crashed to the ground. “That’s the greatest sound in the world!” cried Mac Lampton, a jovial, ruddy-cheeked Aggie, over the cheers and high-fiving of the tree crew. “That’s the sound of Bonfire!” All around Lampton, in a wooded lot east of College Station, more than a hundred A&M students were chopping trees and loading logs for the unsanctioned blaze they planned to hold the weekend before Thanksgiving. Upperclassmen barked out orders while freshmen in muddy overalls heaved logs onto the backs of trailers. “Push!” a senior shouted at a group of red-faced boys who strained under the weight of a massive tree. Between turns at the ax, students speculated on how long their 46-foot-high, diesel-soaked stack of timber would take to burn.
In 1999 the notion that students might revive Bonfire would have seemed unconscionable. That year, the ninety-year-old tradition came to an end on November 18 with a singularly horrifying event: The 59-foot-high structure collapsed, and 12 Aggies, nearly all of them teenagers, were crushed to death beneath a million pounds of timber. Among the 27 injured, some survived with the memory of having been pinned beneath the stack for hours, rendered helpless as their friends died around them. In the wake of the tragedy, which then-president Ray Bowen called “perhaps the most difficult time in our 123-year history,” university officials put a hold, and later an official moratorium, on Bonfire. But at A&M, tradition never dies easily. “The administration thought that by taking Bonfire away from us for a few years, guys like us would eventually just fade away,” said Lampton, who graduated in May and is helping to lead Student Bonfire, an organization that is working to revive the tradition. “They thought we’d forget about Bonfire. They underestimated us.”
Four years later, to the world beyond A&M, the desire to resurrect Bonfire after it claimed the lives of twelve people still seems needlessly reckless. But to judge Bonfire by the grimmest moment in its history is to miss the point of why some students and alumni continue to view it as a sacred, and necessary, rite of passage. Its official purpose, as Aggies liked to say, was to stoke their “burning desire to beat the hell out of t.u.” (as the University of Texas is disparagingly called). But long before the 1999 collapse, the event had evolved into much more than just a show of school spirit. Those who have helped build Bonfire talk about the fierce camaraderie and sense of purpose that come with the months-long, around-the-clock undertaking. Those who have watched it burn with up to 70,000 other Aggies speak of feeling part of something much larger than themselves. “There was a lot lost in the years without Bonfire,” said Aaron Stagner, a junior mechanical engineering major who is the spokesman for Student Bonfire. “We nearly lost the traditions that make A&M A&M.” To Bonfire loyalists, choosing not to revive it—and letting it falter in the face of death—is both a disservice to Aggie spirit and to the victims, who will have lost their lives in vain. “There’s a reason that my brother was working on the stack at 2:42 that morning,” said senior Kristin West, whose brother was killed in the collapse. “He was a die-hard Bonfire person. He’d want Bonfire to continue but only if it could be safely returned to campus.”
The university—which is currently being sued by some of the victims’ families—has given no assurances that it will ever allow Bonfire to burn again. In 2002, when Bowen announced the official moratorium on Bonfire, Lampton and other concerned students banded together to come up with an alternative. They staged a small blaze off campus in November 2002, in which logs were laid on the ground in the shape of the UT Longhorn. In 2003 they solicited money from alumni, hawked T-shirts, and even sold their own plasma to raise funds for a larger-scale project that would be more like the lost tradition. “If we kept letting the years go by without holding Bonfire, there wouldn’t be anyone left who would know what to do,” said Lampton, who, as a freshman, cut trees and loaded logs in 1999. “This is hands-on.”
Lampton grinned as he watched the students around him this past November, few of whom had ever seen Bonfire before but who had still come to build one. During breaks, boys with the close-cropped hair of A&M’s Corps of Cadets gathered around the half-built stack to admire their work, a modest pile of logs crowned with a faded American flag. Drenched in sweat, they bound their blistered hands with athletic tape and gulped down water they poured into their “pots,” or hard hats. Lampton drove to the woods nearby, where a dozen girls stood around an oak tree, taking turns with an ax:
“Bring that tree down!”
“It’s begging you to finish it off!”
“Don’t swing tired! Chip it out!”
“Come on, Amber! Swing like you know how!”
After a few more swings, the tree began to lean, and then, with a loud snap, it plunged to earth. The girls cheered and whooped and threw their arms around each other as Lampton looked on, beaming. “This is where you make your friends for life,” he said.
AROUND CAMPUS THESE DAYS, one complaint is heard over and over again: School spirit is not what it used to be. Many students say they selected A&M over other Texas universities not just for the academics but for the Aggie experience—and that experience, which once included Bonfire, is a pale imitation of what it once was. “The Friday before a home game, campus used to be alive and energized,” said Luke Cheatham, a civil engineering major now in his fifth year at A&M. “All the dorms were doing yells. People were working on Bonfire. Now there’s not the same excitement or camaraderie.” The custom of saying “howdy” to fellow Aggies on campus, which had been on the wane, has nearly vanished. Silver Taps, the monthly memorial for A&M’s dead, is more sparsely attended than in years past. And while upperclassmen still stand throughout each football game, as is the custom for showing solidarity with their team, enough freshmen now file out during the fourth quarter that it has become a frequent source of angry letters to the student newspaper, the Battalion. Add a series of gridiron losses—the University of Oklahoma trounced the school last fall 77-0, for the worst defeat in A&M’s history—and the campus has been gripped by a sense of malaise. “A lot of students built their spirit around Bonfire,” said Kristin West. “Now there’s nothing to take its place. A&M feels like a university of forty-five thousand individuals now, not the family it used to be.”
The organizers of Student Bonfire believe that building and burning an off-campus blaze can help repair flagging school spirit. But universities have a short collective memory; the students who are now seniors began attending A&M the year after Bonfire’s collapse and aren’t necessarily nostalgic for its return. “We haven’t felt it,” said Sommer Hamilton, the editor of the Battalion for the fall 2003 semester. “We haven’t built it. We haven’t seen Bonfire burn. When I brought it up to my editorial board, I said we had to take a stance about whether or not to bring the tradition back. One person said, ‘I really don’t care.’ That’s the attitude I see on campus, a shrugging of shoulders.” Hamilton, who described herself as “a cynical senior not quite unhappy that a ‘tradition’ that killed twelve people just like me isn’t still a part of this campus,” is wary of bringing back the rowdy, mostly male culture that surrounded the building of Bonfire, which was not always welcoming to women and minorities. “Is that really something we want to embrace?” she said. She recalled having seen several guys at a campus cafeteria last year, in work clothes, who had just left the off-campus cut site; rather than using silverware, they ate with their hands, as is Bonfire custom. “It seemed outdated,” she said. “It didn’t seem to fit with what we were trying to do at A&M.”
After the collapse, Bowen commissioned a study that estimated that the cost to safely reinstate Bonfire on campus would be $2.5 million—a prohibitive price tag. “Some thought the study was a complete sham and that the numbers were wildly inflated,” said alumnus Dave Nelson, who is working to bring the blaze back to campus. “Others thought it was an honest effort to bring back a Bonfire, not a pile of scrap wood, that was worthy of Texas A&M.” Whatever the case may be, the subsequent suspension of Bonfire had the effect of purging a generation of “redpots,” student leaders who oversaw its construction. Redpots embodied the best and worst of Aggie culture, serving as the guardians of both its traditions and its excesses. Under their watch, drinking and hazing were common. Underclassmen were paddled with ax handles, sometimes covered in feces, and subjected to other humiliations. Injuries involving axes and machetes were not unusual, and concussions and broken bones occurred long before the tragedy in 1999. An A&M-sponsored commission that later studied the collapse concluded in its report: “In the experience of the investigation team, Texas A&M is unique in allowing this level of irresponsible personal behavior in and around a construction project of this magnitude.”
That is the lingering sorrow at A&M—that the collapse of Bonfire might have been prevented. More will be understood when suits brought by some of the victims’ families go to trial in 2005, but already it is known that there were warning signs that Bonfire’s multilayered wedding-cake design was unstable. Throughout the nineties, several engineering professors had expressed concern to both the administration and the redpots about the stack’s design and were ignored. In 1994 it collapsed during heavy rain; no students were injured since none were present, and reconstruction proceeded.
For these reasons, the sense of loss at A&M is still as acute today as it was four years ago. On the anniversary of the Bonfire collapse, November 18, hundreds of students gathered on the polo fields just before 2:42 a.m. to commemorate the dead. A photo of each victim was illuminated by a candle—every bright, young face a stark reminder of the tragedy’s personal toll. Parents embraced one another, crying softly. Solemn members of the Corps of Cadets wiped away tears. As a bagpiper began to play “Amazing Grace,” one girl, overcome with emotion, fell to her knees, weeping. There were prayers and a recitation of the victims’ names, followed by silence. Then, spontaneously, the crowd began to sing together, in broken voices: “Some may boast of prowess bold/Of the school they think so grand/But there’s a spirit can ne’er be told/It’s the spirit of Aggieland.”
TWELVE DAYS BEFORE STUDENT BONFIRE was set to burn, members of a group called the Bonfire Coalition gathered on campus, as they do every Tuesday night. Sixty students in maroon polo shirts and khakis took their seats, some wearing commemorative pots, as student leader Alex King greeted them with a cheerful “Howdy!” After a few announcements, King began grilling the freshmen:
“When did redpots start overseeing Bonfire?”
“‘74?” one freshman said, apprehensively.
King shook his head. “Ten push-ups!”
The coalition, which is not affiliated with any off-campus blazes, is trying to keep alive knowledge about Bonfire while lobbying the administration to allow for its return. (“Don’t worry,” King told the anxious freshmen. “The test next week is hard, but it won’t ask you for details like what gauge wire was used.”) After students were drilled, alumnus Marty Holmes spoke to them about his memories of Bonfire and showed them a grainy videotape of the 1986 blaze. On the television screen before them, a majestic plume of flames unfurled skyward while tens of thousands of Aggies cheered and sang in unison. It was a magnificent spectacle, and the students watched in reverent silence. “We didn’t build Bonfire,” Holmes told them. “Bonfire built us.” But he cautioned the group about Student Bonfire: “If someone gets hurt or, God forbid, gets killed out there, what y’all are trying to do is toast.”
The following week, Aggies finished building the stack for Student Bonfire. Unlike previous years, the base of every log touched the ground, and five supporting logs had been driven ten feet below the soil by a driller. Construction had been overseen by a professional engineer, an A&M alumnus who was donating his time. Every possible precaution, Student Bonfire organizers maintained, had been taken to ensure students’ safety. “No alcohol on the site is our number one priority,” said Aaron Stagner. “We’re zero-tolerance. A Breathalyzer test is given if we suspect anything. At the beginning of every shift, we take attendance. If anyone is new to the site, they have to take a class that we give in safety procedures. We have an insurance policy that covers anyone who works here. And we shut down the site at midnight, so no one’s making important decisions at three o’clock in the morning.” What about injuries? “The worst one we’ve had so far was a sprained wrist, and that’s it, besides lots of blisters,” he said. “We have people trained in EMS procedures on-site. And we have cell phones if we need to call for help.” Hazing was forbidden, though the spirit of the old days lived on through students’ frayed T-shirts and painted pots, a few of which read “Hell-raiser,” “I Kill Trees,” “Pro-Hazing,” “It’s Not Peer Pressure. It’s Just Your Turn,” and “Girls With Big Tits Do It Better.”
By Saturday night, when Student Bonfire was scheduled to burn, huge crowds stood waiting near campus for the buses that would take them to the burn site. So many Aggies showed up to see the blaze—13,000, by the final count—that the lighting was delayed for almost two hours while students who had given up on catching a ride walked the last few miles in the dark. “Maybe next year!” one student who was lucky enough to have gotten onto a bus called out to the crowd, laughing. “We’ll take pictures!” At the stack, the mood was ebullient. Because the university would not recognize the event, there were no yell leaders or Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band members to rile up the crowd, so students improvised instead. “We’re going to beat the hell out of t.u.!” screamed several self-appointed yell leaders as the crowd whooped back in agreement. Each time the pile of logs was hosed down with diesel, the crowd grew more raucous, chanting “Light it! Light it!” The bright pops of camera flashes cut through the darkness, and for as far as the eye could see, people stood, craning to get a view. Just before ten, cheers rose up as a band of students wearing pots and overalls marched, arm in arm, into the crowd behind a Student Bonfire crew chief who held aloft a torch. “Farmers, fight! Farmers, fight!” they cried, as the crowd let forth a long, low “Whoooop!”
Burlap-wrapped ax handles soaked in kerosene were lit off of the torch and carried to the stack, which took only a few moments to ignite. The crowd cheered, then fell into a hushed silence. Fire climbed up the outer ring of logs, radiating such intense heat that onlookers began to strip off their sweaters and jackets. The customary orange outhouse symbolizing UT that rested atop the stack caught fire and soon crumbled and fell, to wild cheering and applause. Thousands of embers darted through the air, brightening the night sky. Anyone who stumbled across the scene would have thought he was witnessing some sort of ancient pagan ritual, for as soon as the fire was lit, students began to run through the litany of yells, hand gestures, and cheers that are unique to A&M. The assembled Aggies did not linger for long after the outhouse fell; alcohol was not allowed at the site, and there were parties back in College Station to attend. But that night, as they stood and stared up at the flames together, watching a bonfire burn, the Aggie family was united—for a little while, at least.