The Aggie Bonfire Tragedy

A tradition is in trouble: twelve Aggies are dead, the campus is still in mourning, and experts are questioning whether the bonfire collapse was just a freak accident. Now A&M officials must decide whether keeping an Aggie icon is worth the risks.

so, how it should be designed, built, managed, and inspected, will rest with A&M president Ray Bowen. At any other university, this process would be routine. At Texas A&M, it is charged with emotion. A correspondent who identified himself underneath his name as “An Aggie Dad” wrote the university, “[I]t is not the Aggie spirit to accept defeat. We do not wish to have these fine Aggies who have given their lives to have died in vain. AGGIE BONFIRE MUST CONTINUE AND DAMN THE TORPEDOES… . there must be a continuation of Aggie Bonfires, even if it doesn’t seem wise.”

Not all Aggies hold such extreme sentiments, of course. But enough do that the issue of what will happen to Bonfire (always capitalized in Aggie usage and seldom accompanied by “the”) is reminiscent of other crises in the university’s history, when hard-line traditionalists among both alumni and students resisted such changes as the end of compulsory membership in the Corps of Cadets and the admission of women. And make no mistake, this is a crisis, because if A&M does not take steps to ensure the safety of its students — to make certain that no other Aggies ever have to face what confronted Brittny Allison and Lucas Gregory and those who did not survive to make witness statements — then the empathy the university received from the world will turn to outrage.

How can a stack of wood be so important? As everyone knows, Aggies are different. To them, A&M means not just a university but a “fantastic, heart-warming, impossible-to-describe family,” as a graduate wrote in a letter published in the Bonfire memorial issue of the school’s alumni magazine. That family is defined and united by a unique culture rooted in the university’s history as a military and agricultural institution. Even today, when fewer than 2,000 of A&M’s 43,000 students are members of the corps, military esprit and conformity run deep, as do the idealized elements of small-town life: community, tradition, loyalty, optimism, and unabashed sentimentality. The continuity of this culture has been undisturbed by the admission of women and the increase in enrollment from around 10,000 students in the sixties to more than 40,000 — and a main reason, Aggies will tell you, is Bonfire, an immense three-months-long project that introduces freshmen to the Aggie way of preserving traditions and bonding in common cause. Never mind that it destroys thousands of trees every year, inflicts dozens of serious injuries, occupies upward of 100,000 man-hours, puts some students in academic jeopardy, and calls for two six-hour nighttime shifts in addition to daytime work during Push, the last two weeks of construction. Isolated, overlooked, and made sport of for much of their school’s 124-year history, Aggies long ago stopped caring whether the outside world appreciated or approved of their ways. “From the outside you can’t understand it. From the inside you can’t explain it” goes a popular saying on campus.

But now A&M has something it must explain, and the questions will not be easy to answer. Unlike an airplane crash, the bonfire had no black box. It did not even have a blueprint. Nor did it have professional supervision. It was a product of craft rather than science, a towering but primitive totem built according to methods that were passed on by word of mouth from one year’s group of artisans (student leaders known as redpots, a reference to the color of their hard hats) to the next. In hindsight, the more that is known about the history of the bonfire, the way it is built, and the mythology that surrounds it, the less the collapse seems like a freak accident and the more it seems like an accident waiting to happen.

Two dozen or so unsharpened yellow pencils rest in Teddy Hirsch’s right hand. The pencils represent bonfire logs. He taps the blunt lead ends against the desk in his home office to shape them into a cylinder, stands them straight up, and opens his fist. Thwack! Pencils fall in all directions. “When you stand logs vertically,” says the emeritus professor of civil engineering at Texas A&M, “you’ve got no stability.” He reaches for two small rubber bands and places them around the top and the bottom of the cylinder. This time the stack wobbles and tips over. He repeats the experiment, only this time he double-wraps the two rubber bands. The pencils stand. What’s the difference? “Friction,” says Hirsch. “With enough friction you can resist horizontal shear.”

Teddy Hirsch, class of ’52, is a lifelong Aggie. Now seventy, he has spent almost his entire professional career at Texas A&M, earning three degrees, including a doctorate, in civil engineering and serving on the faculty from 1956 to 1992. For 25 years he was the head of the structural engineering division. The next time you drive on a freeway and see a collision barricade made of 55-gallon oil drums, think of Teddy Hirsch: It was his idea. Tall, trim, and with the weathered face of a man who has spent a lot of time on job sites, he now works as a consultant in a room filled with engineering tools, references, and Aggie memorabilia. Ever since he moved into his house a few blocks south of campus in 1966, he has gone out to the woods where bonfire logs are cut to gather his winter firewood from the leavings. “I’m going to tell you what I tell prospective clients before they hire me,” he had said when I first called him. “I don’t give opinions, just facts. You may not like ’em, but they’re facts. And the fact is that the layered wedding cake is inherently unstable.”

Hirsch is no second-guesser. He became worried about the stability of the layered wedding cake years ago, when he noticed a pattern of bonfires’ collapsing soon after being lit at eight o’clock on the night before the annual football game with the University of Texas, or as Aggies call it, t.u. “We have a

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