Eternal Flame

After the 1999 tragedy that killed twelve Aggies, Texas A&M wanted to extinguish its annual Bonfire. Good luck.

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!”

“Stupid tree!”

“KILL IT!”

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

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