Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Bonfire Remembered

For those of you who don't know, Kristy and I spent almost exactly five years in Bryan/College Station while I attended graduate school at Texas A&M University. We arrived in College Station on Kristy's birthday (July 11, 1996), I defended my PhD in nuclear engineering on Kristy's birthday (July 11, 2001), and we pulled up stakes for Albuquerque and Sandia National Laboratories about a week later. We loved the experience of living in Aggieland (especially if you take away the brutally hot summers), but we were there during the collapse of the annual Aggie Bonfire.

You may remember the collapse in the news, but you may not remember that 11 students and 1 former student died when the stack collapsed 10 years ago today. It was one of the saddest moments in the history of Texas A&M. The entire campus felt different for the rest of that 1999 fall semester, and to some extent, every fall semester has had a different feel since then.

For us, the Bonfire collapse was very personal even though we didn't know any of the 12 victims. The Bonfire construction always began in early September as students would go to the cut site and start clearing the land. About a MONTH or more before the game against the Longhorns, the students would begin stacking the logs. Some Aggie bonfires reached heights over a 100 feet before the administration started putting limits on them. As peripheral participants (that is, we watched the construction closely and looked forward to Thanksgiving night when it was lit), we both felt just a little excitement every time we would see the stack. The site was located adjacent to the Zachry Engineering building parking lot, so each morning I would look out in amazement at the progress. The STUDENTS were building this monstrous thing with very little mechanization.

We received a phone call from our friends at about 4 in the morning to tell us of the tragedy. Then, Mom called shortly after because she wanted to make sure I wasn't trapped under 1,000 logs at the bonfire site. In the days that followed, we made our way to the site and the makeshift memorial. We cried a LOT. We couldn't believe that it had happened.

On November 26, 1999, I attended the Texas-Texas A&M game for the only time that we lived in College Station. I felt like one of our best friends (Jen -- she cried/cries at every game) because I cried when the jets flew over in missing man formation before the game. The game ended like it should have, the Aggies prevailed 20-16 in front of over 86,000 Texans.

This is Brian Gamble after he recovered the Major Applewhite fumble to seal the win:

It is really hard to believe that it has been 10 years since that event and this picture (with many others from that day) will still start my eyes watering. My prayers are with the families of the victims and all Aggies that stop to reflect back today.


Here is the link to the Bonfire Memorial video. It is about five minutes long, but it is worth it. Here is another good site on the aftermath.

1 comment:

Brett said...

I was standing next to you at this game, and I don't think you REALLY cried (in your defense). However, I do think you may have "teared up" a little bit . . . and you got goosebumps. We both did. And shortly after the jets flew over, the PA announcer reported that a 13th person, who had been in critical condition, was upgraded to stable -- keeping our list of fallen soldiers at the coveted magical number of "12." It was at that time that I looked at you and said, "Russ, we are getting ready to win this game." And we did.

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