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,

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