A few minutes after two-thirty on the morning of November 18, the bottom stack of the Texas A&M bonfire began to groan and creak like a door opening in a horror movie. The 18-foot logs, which were wired together so that they stood perpendicular to the ground around the base of a towering center pole, started to lean slowly to the southeast. Above this base rose three more perpendicular stacks, stair-stepped to make the entire 59-foot structure resemble a wedding cake. Each tier rested on the one below it, so that when the bottom layer shifted, the entire stack of logs, more than a million pounds of timber, was set in motion.
At that moment, Thomas Kilgore couldn’t believe his eyes. One of the student leaders of the bonfire project, he was walking around the perimeter of the bottom stack, carrying out his assigned task of making sure that everything was going according to plan, when he thought he saw some logs move away from him. Thinking that his eyes were playing tricks on him — he felt weary, hungry, and a little faint — he shook his head to clear it and took a few steps back to get a better view. That retreat may have saved his life.
Brittny Allison was sitting on a plank some thirty feet in the air, suspended by ropes from the center pole as she wired incoming logs to those already in position in the second tier, when she saw the timbers in front of her start to move. She looked up, saw the third and fourth stacks bulge, and knew that they were going to fall. Her first instinct was to jump, but instantly she recognized that to do so would only propel her into their path, so she chose to ride it out in her swing. A log landed on her left shoulder, leaving a bruise on her biceps, bounced up into her face, and hit her nose. “I remembered to give with it,” she later said in her witness statement, “because I didn’t want my face to get injured.” The next thing she knew, the stack had finished falling, most of it away from her position, and she found herself on the shapeless heap that less than ten seconds before had been the bonfire, her swing nowhere in sight. Her left foot was trapped between two logs, but she was able to maneuver it free and climb down.
Collin Zacek was one of twelve Corps of Cadets members toting a huge log to the south side of the stack, the area that would suffer the brunt of the collapse. He heard a loud pop, which was the center pole fracturing, and saw it all happen in front of him, maybe ten yards away: A few more paces, a few seconds difference, and they all might have been dead. “I saw people jumping and trying to get away,” his statement read. “I saw some crushed to death in less than a second. We all froze in shock, as if we had turned to stone. The log we were carrying fell to the ground.”
Lucas Gregory was working on a second stack swing when he felt the stack move. He ducked his head, grabbed the two logs in front of him, and prayed. Instead of falling off the stack, the logs toppled over onto what was left of it. “After I realized that the stack had quit moving and I was not dead, I tried to get up,” he recalled in his statement. But he was pinned to the pile by a guy rope that had snapped and fallen into the collapsing logs. Rescuers cut him loose.
Jeremy Worley, standing on the second tier, heard a loud crack and saw the stack start to shift underneath him. “It happened so quickly, yet at the same time, it almost seemed like slow motion,” his statement read. He tumbled 34 feet to the ground and knew that he had to get away as fast as possible before a log crushed him. But when he scrambled to his feet, he did not know which way to run: The air was choked with dust, and most of the lights on the perimeter of the bonfire site had gone out. Through the dust cloud he spotted a lone light that was still working and sprinted for it. Only when he was safely out of harm’s way did he feel pain in one of his legs, which was so intense that he had to lie down.
Erica Alcala was on the ground on the southeast side of the stack, cutting wires into the right lengths for tying logs to the stack, when she heard the loud pop of the center pole. Above her, atop the first tier, a co-worker yelled for her to get out of the way. She looked up, saw the stack falling in her direction, and ran for her life. But Michael Ebanks, whose warning had saved her, was squarely in the path of the cascading logs and perished. The avalanche of timber would claim eleven other young lives.
In the days after the bonfire’s collapse, the university turned its best face to the world — its unity, its dignity, its expressions of grief — but as the months have passed, shock and empathy have been followed by some hard questions: What went wrong? What happens next? Such is the rhythm of all public tragedies, whether it is the fall of a bonfire or the fall of an airplane. We have to know what happened so that the living can go on with their lives with some assurance that it will not happen again. The official judgment about what caused the bonfire tragedy will be rendered in May by an independent commission created by the university and chaired by Leo Linbeck, Jr., the head of a Houston construction company, who chose its members. Then the question of whether Texas A&M will have another bonfire this fall — or ever — and, if