Memories, traditions preserved after Texas A&M bonfire collapse

Texas A&M honors Aggies killed, injured 20 years ago

COLLEGE STATION, Texas – The exact time and date, 2:42 a.m. Nov. 18, 1999, are said to be seared in the hearts and minds of Texas A&M Aggies everywhere.

Commemorated every year and now on the 20th anniversary, Texas A&M University has honored the 12 students who died and the 27 injured when the giant stack of logs for the school's annual bonfire collapsed beneath them.

Bonfire tradition lives on at Texas A&M following deadly collapse

Dedicated five years after the tragedy, a circular memorial was built around the site with a marker where the center pole once stood.

One of its most compelling features, the 12 portals facing the direction of victims’ hometowns adorned with plaques that bear their images and quotations reflecting who they were.

“When you step in there, it’s like stepping into a window of their life,” said Kyle Muilman, the outreach and education chair for the Traditions Council.

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Hundreds of boxes containing the mementos left at the spontaneous memorial are now housed and cataloged for research at the Texas A&M Cushing Memorial Library and Archives.

"We've got this because it's important to maintain it," said Anton duPlessis, the collection's curator.

Several miles away from the site in a rural area outside Bryan, the bonfire tradition lives on after it was renewed following the tragedy.

No longer sponsored by the university in the wake of the investigations and lawsuits that followed, the now student-sponsored event overseen by a board of directors, was moved in 2002.

U.S. Fire Administration report into Texas A&M Bonfire (PDF)

Special Commission on 1999 Texas A&M Bonfire (PDF)

Dion McInnis, who serves on the board, began attending Texas A&M soon after the collapse.

McInnis took part in building the student bonfires that followed.

He said the same wedding cake design is now shorter, 32 feet at its highest, and is more stable because every log must touch the ground.

"You can do the job with less people on the stack," McInnis said.

Local Aggies reflect on 20th anniversary of bonfire tragedy

Instead of engineers, McInnis said every year, he or another member of the board, are always on site to answer questions and review any adjustments that need to be made.

But otherwise, McInnis said year to year, "the passing down of the proven process continues."

"I find myself 99.99% of the time just observing their adherence to the known strategies and processes that have worked and kept people safe," McInnis said.

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Being that the bonfire is student-driven, McInnis said, "You make them directly accountable to each other."

McInnis said demolition experts looked at the stack in 2010 when dry conditions led to a burn ban.

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"Do we wait to burn it or dismantle it?" McInnis said the experts were asked. "The only way this thing is coming down is to burn it," the experts answered, according to McInnis.

Currently under construction, this year’s student bonfire will be held Nov. 26 ahead of the last football game of the season against LSU on Nov. 30.

Web Extra: Texas A&M Aggie Ashton Vara explains how the student bonfire is built

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