Ring of Fire

It was one of the most passionately observed traditions on any college campus in the country. Then, on November 18, 1999, a week before it was scheduled to burn, the Texas A&M Bonfire collapsed in the middle of the night, killing twelve Aggies. Ten years later, as the university continues to wrestle with the tragedy—and debate whether Bonfire should ever return to campus—the students and alumni who chopped logs, hauled timber, and built stack talk about what they saw, what they lost, and how their school was changed forever.
Ring of Fire
The Bonfire Memorial, located on the A&M campus at the site of the collapse, photographed on September 17, 2009.
Photograph by Randal Ford

The bonfire symbolizes two things,” reads the 1947 Texas A&M freshman handbook. “A burning desire to beat the team from the University of Texas, and the undying flame of love that every loyal Aggie carries in his heart for the school.”

The tradition began as a wood-and-trash pile in 1909, when A&M was still an all-male military college. Over time it grew in scale and ambition, eventually setting a world record in 1969, when it reached 109 feet. In keeping with A&M’s belief that Aggies should learn as much outside the classroom as they do in it, the arduous task of constructing Bonfire was left entirely to students. Until 1999, it burned every year except for 1963, when it was

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