Aggie Bonfire

Aggie Bonfire

Aggie Bonfire was a long-standing tradition at Texas A&M University as part of the college rivalry with the University of Texas at Austin.] To find their own place in the Bonfire hierarchy, female students founded the all-female Bonfire Reload Crew to provide refreshments to those working at Cut and Stack.citation | last = Lebas | first = John | title = Women Have Increasing Role in Bonfire | newspaper = The Bryan-College Station Eagle | date = November 19, 1999 | url = http://www.theeagle.com/bonfire/storyarchive/november1999/191199d.htm | accessdate = 2007-02-28]

Injuries plagued the construction process. In 1981, student Wylie Keith Joplinn died after being run over by a tractor at the Cut site. At the 1985 Cut site, one student broke his hip, and, in 1989, another student lost two fingers when logs crushed his hand. Fractures and amputations were very rare, but many students suffered cuts, scrapes, or exposure to poison ivy.

The 1980s also saw increased alcohol consumption during the Bonfire ceremony. In 1988, police issued 140 Minor In Possession citations and arrested six people. The following year, the local police department brought a paddywagon to the site for the first time, as they anticipated mass arrests for alcohol violations.citation|last=Rugeley|first=Cindy|title='It's just gotten out of hand'/Critics seek to smother spirited flames of Aggies' annual bonfire celebration|newspaper=Houston Chronicle|date=November 26, 1989|url=http://www.chron.com/CDA/archives/archive.mpl?id=1989_666543|accessdate=2007-08-16] As many as 150 police officers were on duty during the Bonfire burning from the Texas A&M and College Station police departments and the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.

In 1989, the Campus Ministry Association, representing 17 religious denominations, unanimously approved a resolution asking the university to change Bonfire because of concerns about safety, participant academic performance, humanitarian considerations, and the environment. Shortly afterwards, the Faculty Senate's Committee of the Whole approved a resolution asking for a panel that explored alternatives to Bonfire.Citation|title=Smoldering debate: Two A&M groups seeking way to cool off Aggie bonfire|newspaper=Houston Chronicle|date=November 15, 1989|url=http://www.chron.com/CDA/archives/archive.mpl?id=1989_664199|accessdate=2007-08-16]

Although students protested Bonfire's environmental impact since 1970, no changes were made for decades. In 1990, student Scott Hantman asked the Bonfire leadership to help him address the problem. The group solicited volunteers, and in the spring of 1991, they planted 400 trees. The tradition, Aggie Replant, has been repeated every year since. Replant became an organization independent of Bonfire in 1994 when it gained its own Student Government Committee.

Later years

After being held at the Duncan Intramural Fields on the south side of A&M's campus for twenty-seven years, in 1992, Bonfire was relocated to the Polo Fields on the northwest corner of campus. This more isolated site, with a larger area for people to gather, made it a safer location.Citation|newspaper=Houston Chronicle|title=Aggies to move site of annual bonfire|date=March 25, 1992|url=http://www.chron.com/CDA/archives/archive.mpl?id=1992_1045135|accessdate=2007-08-16] After heavy rains in 1994, the partially completed Bonfire began to slowly lean to the side as the soil underneath shifted. Student officials had enough warning to clear the area and tear down the Bonfire one week before its scheduled burn date.citation | last = Bernstein | first = Alan | title = Aggie Bonfire holds distinction as Texas symbol | newspaper= The Houston Chronicle | date = November 18, 1999 | url =http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/special/bonfire/386353.html | accessdate = 2007-02-28] Nine tractors, two bulldozers, and two forklifts dismantled the stack, which, at 70% completed, stood 40 feet (10 m) tall and 45 feet (10 m) wide.citation|last=Stewart|first=Richard|last2=Ortiz|first2=Jose de Jesus|title=A&M will go full tilt again at wood tower|newspaper=Houston Chronicle|date=October 27, 1994|accessdate=2007-08-16|url=http://www.chron.com/CDA/archives/archive.mpl?id=1994_1234628]

The 1994 collapse of Bonfire was witnessed by thousands of people around the world. The Texas A&M Department of Computer Science set up a camera aimed at the Bonfire site that took a picture every 10 minutes and posted it on the Internet. On the day of the collapse over 29,000 visitors visited the web page, at a time when only 20 million people worldwide had Internet access.citation|last=Silverman|first=Dwight|title=Hullabaloo.caneck.caneck: Aggies burn up Internet|newspaper=Houston Chronicle|date=October 29, 1994|accessdate=2007-08-16|url=http://www.chron.com/CDA/archives/archive.mpl?id=1994_1234991]

Students and alumni flocked to the Polo Fields, working around the clock, to rebuild the Bonfire in time for the game. It was completed only hours before it was scheduled to burn.citation|title=Aggies light fire after frenzy of rebuilding|date=November 4, 1994|newspaper=Houston Chronicle|url=http://www.chron.com/CDA/archives/archive.mpl?id=1994_1236554|accessdate=2007-08-16] After the 1994 Bonfire was burned, two tons of lime was spread on the Polo Fields to stabilize the ground. This layer hardened to a consistency similar to concrete.citation|last=LeBas|first=John|title=Bonfire design evolution fueled by informal techniques|newspaper=Bryan-College Station Eagle|date=November 13, 2000|accessdate=2007-08-22|url=http://www.theeagle.com/bonfire/storyarchive/november2000/111300bonfireevolution.htm]

In 1996 a student, Greg White, died in a car accident on his way home from Cut. The student and several companions were riding in the bed of a pickup truck when the driver lost control and the truck rolled. Nine other students were injured.citation|title=Texas A&M student killed, 9 others injured in traffic accident on Texas 6|newspaper=Houston Chronicle|date=September 24, 1996|accessdate=2007-08-16|url=http://www.chron.com/CDA/archives/archive.mpl?id=1996_1367389]

In its later years, students building Bonfire used logs donated by local landowners who wanted their land cleared for construction or farming. Over 8000 logs were used each year in the late 1990s, taking about 5000 students a combined 125,000 man-hours to construct. After being doused in 700 lb (318 kg) of jet fuel, applied by staff members at A&M's Fire Training School, the Yell Leaders, Drum Majors, and Redpots then lit the stack with torches the night before the annual football game against the University of Texas when at home and two nights before the game when it was played in Austin.

This event was very popular amongst current and former students and people traveled from all over the state and the nation to observe the burning of Bonfire. Hotel rooms within a 65-mile (100 km) radius of College Station were booked weeks or months in advance of the date Bonfire burned.citation|last=Turner|first=Allan|title=The bonfire in their belly|newspaper=Houston Chronicle|date=November 19, 1995|url=http://www.chron.com/CDA/archives/archive.mpl?id=1995_1308652|accessdate=2007-08-16] Crowds ranged from 30,000 to 70,000 people, depending on the weather and the strength of the Aggie football team. The 1998 Bonfire was broadcast live on Fox Sports Southwest.citation|title=Gearing up for bonfire|date=November 24, 1998|newspaper=Houston Chronicle|accessdate=2007-08-16|url=http://www.chron.com/CDA/archives/archive.mpl?id=1998_3099885]

Collapse

At approximately 2:30 a.m. on 18 November 1999, [cite news|url=http://www.cnn.com/US/9911/18/students.crushed.03/|title=Unlit bonfire collapse at Texas A&M kills at least 4, injures 25|publisher=CNN|accessdate=2007-12-20|date=November 18, 1999] the 40-foot (12 m) high stack, consisting of about 5000 logs, collapsed during construction. Of the 58 students and former students working on the stack, 12 were killed and 27 were injured. Within minutes of the collapse, members of Texas Task Force 1, the state's elite emergency response team, arrived to begin the rescue efforts.citation | last = Morton | first = Anissa | title = Aggie Community Bands Together | newspaper = The Bryan-College Station Eagle | date = November 19, 1999 | url = http://www.theeagle.com/bonfire/storyarchive/november1999/191199b.htm | accessdate = 2007-02-28 ] Rescue operations took over 24 hours; the pace was hampered by the fact that many of the logs were removed by hand for fear that using heavy equipment to remove them would cause further collapses, resulting in further injuries to those still trapped. Students, including the entire Texas A&M football team and many members of the university's Corps of Cadets, rushed to the site to assist rescue workers with manually removing the logs.citation | last = Bowen | first = Larry | title = Football Players Assist in Rescue | newspaper = The Bryan-College Station Eagle | date = November 19, 1999 | url = http://www.theeagle.com/bonfire/storyarchive/november1999/191199e.htm | accessdate = 2007-02-28 ] The Texas A&M civil engineering department was also called on to examine the site and help the workers decide the order in which the logs could be safely removed, and, at the request of the Texas Forest Service, Steely Lumber Company in Huntsville, Texas sent log-moving equipment and operators. Bonfire survivor John Comstock was the last living person to be removed from the stack. He spent months in the hospital following amputation of his left leg and partial paralysis of his right side. Comstock returned to A&M in 2001 to finish his degree.citation | last = Brown | first = Kelly| title = More than memories remain for some survivors of collapse | newspaper=The Bryan-College Station Eagle | url =http://209.189.226.235/aandmnews/111804survivor.php|date=November 18, 2004 | accessdate = 2007-12-22 ]

Response

Within minutes of the collapse, word of the accident spread among students and the community. Before sunrise, the accident was the subject of news reports around the world. Within hours, 50 satellite trucks were broadcasting from the Texas A&M campus. At noon, students held an impromptu prayer service in the center of campus, at Rudder Fountain.citation | last = Whitmarsch | first = Geneva | title = Thousands Mourn Fallen Aggies | newspaper = The Bryan-College Station Eagle | date = November 26, 1999 | url = http://www.theeagle.com/bonfire/storyarchive/november1999/261199a.htm | accessdate = 2007-02-28 ] An official memorial service was held less than seventeen hours after the collapse. Over 16,000 mourners, including Texas Lieutenant Governor Rick Perry, packed Reed Arena to pay tribute to those who died and those who had spent all day trying to rescue the injured. At the end of the service, as A&M University President Ray Bowen presented roses to the families of the dead and injured students, the crowd spontaneously stood in silence, linking arms with those standing next to them, before quietly singing "Amazing Grace". Only after all of the rescue workers and family members had left the facility did the audience depart.cite web | last = Opiela | first = Eric | title = Bonfire Memorial Service | publisher = Texas A&M University | date = November 19, 1999 | url = http://www.msc.tamu.edu/traditions/bonfire/1999/programs/ | accessdate = 2007-02-28 ]

On 25 November 1999, the date that Bonfire would have burned, Aggies instead held a vigil and remembrance ceremony. Over 40,000 people lit candles and observed up to two hours of silence at the site of the collapse, before walking to Kyle Field for yell practice. At the stadium, fans spontaneously relit their candles as the Parsons Mounted Cavalry fired the Aggie cannon twelve times, once for each victim. Former President George H. W. Bush and his wife Barbara and Texas Governor George W. Bush and his wife Laura attended the remembrance ceremony.citation | last = Whitmarsch | first = Geneva | title = Thousands Mourn Fallen Aggies | newspaper = The Bryan-College Station Eagle | date = November 26, 1999 | url = http://www.theeagle.com/bonfire/storyarchive/november1999/261199a.htm | accessdate = 2007-02-28 ]

The following day, the Aggies upset the Texas Longhorns, winning 20–16 in the annual rivalry game. The game began with a flyover of F-16 jets, all piloted by former A&M students, in the missing man formation. At halftime, the Texas Longhorn Band dedicated their performance to the students lost and injured in the collapse, and ended by playing "Amazing Grace" and "Taps", then removing their white hats in a show of respect as they walked off the field. The Fightin' Texas Aggie Band also played a tribute to the fallen and, contrary to the usual tradition, marched off the field in a silent cadence. The stadium was so quiet that a baby's cry was the only noise heard throughout the crowd of over 86,000.cite video | people = Barker, Bob | title = The Fightin' Texas Aggie Band 1999–2000 (Production #121d) | medium = DVD | publisher = Barker Video Productions | year = 2000 ] Aggie students, who normally sit only when the opposing band plays, stood throughout both performances and gave both standing ovations.citation | last = Lebas | first = John | title = Aggies Conquer 'Horns and Heartache | newspaper= The Bryan-College Station Eagle | date = November 27, 1999 | url = http://www.theeagle.com/bonfire/storyarchive/november1999/271199a.htm | accessdate = 2007-02-28 ]

The Bonfire Memorial Commission collected the hundreds of thousands of items that were left by grieving visitors at the site of the collapse. At the Systems Building, Texas A&M leaders erected pictures of the deceased students. There, over a dozen seniors left behind their Aggie rings, permanently donating them to the students who did not live long enough to earn their own.citation | last = Baggett | first = Donnis | title = Spirit Obvious in Aggieland | newspaper = The Bryan-College Station Eagle | date = November 28, 1999 | url = http://www.theeagle.com/bonfire/storyarchive/november1999/281199.htm | accessdate = 2007-02-28 ] Various organizations also established funds to memorialize the victims and to help with expenses incurred because of the accident. In total, the funds received exceeded US$250,000.

Cause, aftermath, and controversy

A commission created by Texas A&M University discovered that a number of factors led to the Bonfire collapse, including "excessive internal stresses" on the logs and "inadequate containment strength" in the wiring used to tie the logs together. The wiring broke after logs from upper tiers were "wedged" into lower tiers.

Detractors further blamed the school for the accident, saying that, in the name of tradition, administrators turned a blind eye to an unsafe structure being constructed with minimal engineering and safety protocols. Before the collapse, some people expressed concerns about the safety of the Bonfire, citing the partial collapse that occurred in a previous Bonfire, the progressively shorter Bonfire burn times (collapse of the stack after lighting) which had dropped from several hours to less than 20 minutes, and numerous incidents involving alcohol or unsafe horseplay at the Bonfire site. At least two of the students killed in the 1999 Bonfire collapse were under the legal drinking age yet their autopsy results showed high blood-alcohol levels; however, inconsistencies in the test results led to questions about their accuracy.citation | last =Brown | first =Kelly | title =Alcohol reports on victims released | newspaper = The Bryan-College Station Eagle | date = May 3, 2000 | url =http://www.theeagle.com/bonfire/storyarchive/may2000/050300alcholfindings.htm | accessdate = 2007-06-18 ]

Parents of students injured or killed in the 1999 collapse filed lawsuits against Texas A&M officials, including President Ray Bowen, Vice President of Student Affairs J. Malon Southerland, the 1999 redpots, and the university.citation | last = LeBas | first = John | title = Suits claim A&M tried to skirt Bonfire liability | newspaper = The Bryan-College Station Eagle | date = June 23, 2002 | url =http://www.theeagle.com/aandmnews/062302bonfireclaims.htm | accessdate = 2007-03-13 ] In one of the six lawsuits, plaintiffs alleged that A&M officials violated the Bonfire victims' right of due process by placing those victims in a "state-created danger" by not ensuring Bonfire's structural integrity and by allowing unqualified students to work on the stack.citation | last =Pierce | first =Carrie | title = Court says A&M is not liable in Bonfire lawsuit | newspaper = The Battalion | date = June 2, 2004 | url =http://media.www.thebatt.com/media/storage/paper657/news/2004/06/02/News/Court.Says.Am.Is.Not.Liable.In.Bonfire.Lawsuit-683943.shtml | accessdate = 2007-03-13 ] The plaintiffs pointed to a $2 million liability policy the university obtained in 1996 and accidental death and dismemberment insurance policies that the university obtained for student workers as early as 1987 as proof that the administrators knew of the dangers of Bonfire. Texas A&M maintains that the insurance policies were actually purchased by an advisory committee to Bonfire and not the university. On 21 May 2004, Federal Judge Samuel B. Kent dismissed all claims against the Texas A&M officials. In 2005, 36 of the 64 original defendants, including all of the redpots, settled their portion of the case for an estimated $4.25 million, paid by their insurance companies.citation | last = Kapitan | first =Craig | title = Bonfire case under scrutiny by court | newspaper = The Bryan-College Station Eagle | date = September 3, 2006 | url =http://www.theeagle.com/stories/090306/am_20060903005.php | accessdate = 2007-03-13] citation | last =Avison | first =April | title = Judge dismisses a Bonfire lawsuit |newspaper= The Bryan-College Station Eagle | date = July 27, 2006 | url =http://www.theeagle.com/stories/072706/am_20060727029.php | accessdate = 2007-03-13 ] The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the remaining lawsuits against Texas A&M and its officials in April 2007.Citation | last = Van Der Werf | first =Martin |title = Appeals Court Upholds Dismissal of Lawsuits Over Texas A&M Bonfire Accident | newspaper = The Chronicle of Higher Education| date = April 25, 2007 | url =http://chronicle.com/news/article/2169/appeals-court-upholds-dismissal-of-lawsuits-over-texas-am-bonfire-accident|accessdate = 2007-05-24] In October 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the appeals court ruling. [cite news|url=http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/latestnews/stories/101007dntexbonfiresuit.d0fe8a.html|title=Supreme Court won't hear Texas A&M bonfire appeal|publisher="Dallas Morning News"|accessdate=2007-10-09|date=2007-10-09|author=Associated Press]

The Texas Board of Professional Engineers announced in 2000 that the Aggie Bonfire met the requirements to be considered a complex construction project that should be regulated by state engineering laws. If Bonfire is resumed by the university in its former state, it will have to be designed and overseen by a professional engineer.citation | last =Lee | first =Christopher | title =Bonfire supervision mandated | newspaper = The Bryan-College Station Eagle | date = June 15, 2000 | url =http://www.theeagle.com/bonfire/storyarchive/june2000/061500bonfiredecisionfolo.htm | accessdate = 2007-06-18]

Bonfire was postponed until 2002 to restructure it to make it safer. Delays in the development of a safety plan, and a high estimated cost (primarily due to liability insurance), led A&M president Ray Bowen to cancel Bonfire again.citation | last = Milloy | first = Ross E.| title = National Briefing | Southwest: Texas: Aggie President Cancels Bonfire | newspaper=The New York Times | url =http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9E03E5DA113DF936A35751C0A9649C8B63|date=February 5, 2002 | accessdate = 2007-03-03 ] Bowen's successor Robert Gates upheld this decision, stating that a "change in the status quo regarding the future of Bonfire would be inappropriate while litigation is still on-going".citation | last = McLaren | first = Janet| title = Gates: Bonfire will not burn in Autumn 2003 | newspaper=The Battalion | url =http://media.www.thebatt.com/media/storage/paper657/news/2003/02/27/FrontPage/Gates.Bonfire.Will.Not.Burn.In.Autumn.2003-514883.shtml|date=February 27, 2003 | accessdate = 2007-03-03 ]

Bonfire Memorial

A memorial was constructed on the university polo fields, the site of the accident. Construction began in October 2003 and was completed by November 2004.citation | last = Spruce | first = Jacquelyn| title = Bonfire Memorial Construction Begins | newspaper=The Battalion | url =http://media.www.thebatt.com/media/storage/paper657/news/2003/10/28/News/Bonfire.Memorial.Construction.Begins-540815.shtml|date=October 28, 2003 | accessdate = 2007-03-03 ] On 18 November 2004, five years following the incident, the Bonfire Memorial was officially dedicated. The memorial is composed of three design elements:citation | last = Mfon | first = Tosin| title = A&M remembers bonfire tragedy | newspaper=The Daily Texan | url =http://media.www.dailytexanonline.com/media/storage/paper410/news/2004/11/19/TopStories/Am.Remembers.Bonfire.Tragedy-811494.shtml|date=November 19, 2004 | accessdate = 2007-03-03 ]
*Tradition Plaza – Marks the entrance to the memorial and reflects on Aggie traditions.
*History Walk – Consists of 89 stones representing the 89 previous years of Bonfire. A gap in the timeline signifies the 1963 Bonfire, which did not burn due to the John F. Kennedy assassination. The three previous Bonfire-related deaths are also memorialized on this time line.
*Spirit Ring – The ring surrounds the site of the collapse and represents the spirit that brought the students together. Twelve portals are placed around the ring, oriented toward each student's hometown. Twenty-seven stones complete the ring, representing the 27 students injured in the collapse.cite web |title=Bonfire Memorial Design |publisher=Texas A&M University |url=http://www.tamu.edu/bonfirememorial/documents/MemorialDesign.pdf |accessdate=2007-02-17|format=PDF]

The memorial design has been recognized by several organizations as an outstanding architectural design and masonry feat. The American Institute of Architects, San Antonio Chapter, recognized the memorial as a winner of the 2005 AIA San Antonio Design Award.cite web |title=AIA San Antonio Announces 2005 Design Awards |publisher=Business Wire |date=November 21, 2005|url=http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0EIN/is_2005_Nov_21/ai_n15863203 |accessdate=2007-02-17] The memorial also was recognized as a winner of the 2005 MCAA International Excellence in Masonry Awards.citation |title=Excellence in Masonry |newspaper=Masonry Magazine |date=2005 |url=http://www.masonrymagazine.com/5-05/excellence2.html |accessdate=2007-02-17]

To further honor the victims, in 2000, the Aggie Replant Committee planted twelve live oak trees at the Polo Grounds.cite web |url = http://replant.tamu.edu/whoweare/history.html |title = History |accessdate = 2006-12-24 |publisher = Texas Aggie Replant ]

Continuation

Despite the university's refusal to allow Bonfire to take place on campus, a non-university sanctioned bonfire took its place. The first unofficial Bonfire since the 1930s was held in 2002 and was known as the "Unity Project." This fire consisted of three piles of wood, with the center stack being ft to m|35 high.citation | title = Off-campus Texas A&M bonfire brings out thousands | newspaper=The Badger Herald |location=Madison, WI | url =http://badgerherald.com/news/2002/11/26/offcampus_texas_a_m_.php|date=November 26, 2002 | accessdate = 2007-03-03 ]

In 2003, the event became known as Student Bonfire. In a design approved by a professional engineer, Student Bonfire uses a wedding cake design, but, in a departure from tradition, every log in the stack touches the ground. For added support, four ft to m|24 poles are spaced evenly around the stack and then bolted to the ft to m|45 center pole with a steel pipe. These poles are known as Windle-sticks, after Levi Windle, a staunch supporter of Student Bonfire who died in an unrelated accident in 2003.citation| last=Moghe|first=Sonia| title = Off-campus bonfire|newspaper=The Battalion | url =http://media.www.thebatt.com/media/storage/paper657/news/2005/11/17/News/OffCampus.Bonfire-1108094.shtml|date=November 17, 2005 | accessdate = 2007-03-03 ] citation|last=Hensley |first=Laura | title = A year after fiasco, student bonfire set to burn | newspaper=The Bryan-College Station Eagle | url =http://209.189.226.235/stories/110106/am_20061101007.php|date=November 1, 2006 | accessdate = 2007-03-03 ] cite news|last=Bart |first=Shirley | title = Student dies after accidental fall | publisher=thebatt.com | url =http://media.www.thebatt.com/media/storage/paper657/news/2003/10/20/News/Student.Dies.After.Accidental.Fall-533040.shtml |date=October 20, 2003 | accessdate = 2008-01-07 ] Since the group does not receive funding, Student Bonfire charges a fee to each attendee to cover expenses. Attendance for Student Bonfire ranges from 8,000–15,000 people and the event is held in Brazos County or one of the surrounding counties.

See also

*Aggie Bonfire leadership
*Traditions of Texas A&M University
*History of Texas A&M University

References

Further reading

*"The Texas Aggie Bonfire : tradition and tragedy at Texas A&M", (2000), ISBN 0967943302

External links

* [http://bonfire.tamu.edu/ The official Aggie Bonfire site] (now an official memorial site)
* [http://cushing.tamu.edu/collections/images/Pages/browseby.php?s=browse&by=category&category=98 Historic Images of Bonfire] — courtesy of the Cushing Memorial Library at Texas A&M University
* [http://www.tamu.edu/bonfirememorial/ Bonfire Memorial Site]
* [http://www.tamu.edu/bonfire-commission/ The Special Commission on the 1999 Bonfire]
* [http://lhb.music.utexas.edu/shows_1999/ Video of Longhorn Band's 1999 Tribute] — requires RealPlayer
* [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-KLKAH8Ghgg Documentary clip] by "Modern Marvels" on YouTube
* [http://www.studentbonfire.com/ Student Bonfire - Rebuilding the Tradition]


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