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Updated November 18, 2004 3:12 AM

Unifying tradition now divides

Eagle photo/Dave McDermand

A photograph taken Wednesday through a rain-streaked window in a room on the 12th floor of the Texas A&M University Oceanography and Meteorology Building shows a handful of officials walking the grounds of the Bonfire Memorial as final preparations are made for Thursday’s dedication. Thousands are expected to converge on A&M’s Polo Fields for the ceremony.

Eagle photo/Dave McDermand

Security officers man the perimeter of the Bonfire Memorial on Wednesday as final preparations are made for Thursday’s dedication. The ceremony begins at 2:30 p.m.

Eagle Staff Writer

An entire graduating class of students has come and gone since the 1999 Bonfire collapse, most never having seen the massive log structure burn on the Texas A&M University campus.

For many of those students, the longtime symbol of the Aggies’ burning desire to beat the University of Texas during the annual November football game is little more than a tale passed down from previous generations. Some have tried to keep the tradition alive with off-campus burnings, while others argue Bonfire should return to campus or forever be left in the past with its horrifying demise.

Five years after the early morning collapse on Nov. 18, 1999, killed 12 Aggies and injured 27, the legend and future of Bonfire have been stuck in limbo. Meanwhile, the university so closely linked to the tradition has looked for ways to move on.

The annual fall project built by thousands of eager Aggies was suspended after the collapse — a decision made by former President Ray Bowen and later enforced by President Robert Gates after he assumed his duties in 2002.

What has continued is the mourning of those who lost their lives in A&M’s worst disaster, and this fall the university community again is gathering to remember instead of revel. The $5 million granite and bronze Bonfire Memorial built on the campus Polo Fields where the stack fell is set to be dedicated Thursday, the five-year anniversary of the collapse.

The massive structure consists of 12 portals — each aligned with the direction of the hometown of the Aggie it memorializes.

“Just as Bonfire was a symbol of Aggie unity, I think the memorial will be as well,” Gates said during a recent interview.

On each anniversary, people have gathered in silence on the Polo Fields at 2:42 a.m. to remember the tragedy at the precise moment it struck. No early morning ceremony was planned this year because of the memorial dedication at 2:30 p.m., when thousands are expected to converge on the fields.

“It’s a very quiet place almost in the middle of campus,” Gates said, recalling a recent visit to the site. “There were a lot of people out there, but it was almost like going to church. Everybody was very quiet, lost in their own thoughts and emotions. I think that’s the way it will be.”

Gates was working part time as interim dean of A&M’s George Bush School of Government and Public Service when Bonfire collapsed. He said he and his wife visited the fallen stack and were struck by the thousands of personal mementos that mourners and well-wishers left along the perimeter fence.

“People were just in shock,” Gates said. “We got a measure of how deeply it affected the entire campus.”

Will Hurd was student body president that semester and remembered feeling as though he was operating on “auto pilot” during the days after Nov. 18. He recently remembered that it took three or four weeks before the reality of the collapse actually sunk in.

“It’s hard whenever I hear ‘Amazing Grace,’” he said. “It takes me back to being out there at the Polo Fields at three in the morning on the night it fell and seeing the mass of wood and the ambulances and the fire trucks. I can’t even begin to imagine what the parents and the families of the ones that lost people, what they had to go through.”

Since graduating the following May, Hurd hasn’t had any official involvement with the university and its plans for Bonfire and the memorial, he said. The 27-year-old works as a diplomat for the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, India, and won’t be able to attend the service.

But Hurd said the dedication of the memorial finally may provide closure for Aggies and the families of those injured and killed.

“We’ll remember this, and hopefully nothing like this will ever happen again,” he said.

A legacy in limbo

It is the former students — Aggies who went to A&M when Bonfire still was a campus institution — who seem to miss the tradition most, Gates said.

Bonfire started as a haphazard trash pile in 1909 but eventually grew into a massive, student-run construction project on campus. It burned every subsequent year except 1963, when President Kennedy was assassinated.

Over its 90-year course, the tradition came to dominate campus life during the fall semester as thousands of students chopped trees, tied the logs together and gathered en masse to set the stack ablaze. Bonfire was, Aggies boasted, the embodiment of their school spirit.

And within a few seconds five years ago, it all came crashing down.

“I think that people feel like there’s sort of an empty place in the fabric of our traditions, if you will,” Gates said. “I think the Bonfire, as much as anything, symbolized Aggie unity. I think Muster and Silver Taps do the same thing. There is nothing like either of those at any other place in the country — they are absolutely unique.”

Both Muster and Silver Taps are ceremonies that pay tribute to Aggies who have died.

Gates is quick to point out that there is more to A&M than Bonfire, or the lack thereof. The College Station university is known for its academic rigor, sports teams and research, he said.

But Hurd, expressing the sentiment of many former students, said Bonfire was special because it provided a common bond among Aggies. It’s sad to think that students haven’t been able to participate in one of the university’s hallmarks, he said.

“Bonfire was not about putting a bunch of logs together and burning them. It was about the campus coming together for several months and doing a tremendous task,” Hurd said. “It was about togetherness.”

The tradition wasn’t started by administrators or former students, he said — it was members of the Corps of Cadets celebrating a victorious football game. The idea to build a bonfire was spontaneous, and whatever tradition eventually replaces the massive log structure likewise cannot be forced, he explained.

Gates agreed that A&M’s traditions should be student-driven. Virtually all the traditions at the university have been started by students, and Bonfire was no different.

“The traditions come into being because of the students — it’s a living thing,” the president said. “I’m sure there will be other new traditions. Will they take the place of Bonfire? I doubt it.”

From time to time, Gates receives e-mails with opinions about what ultimately should happen with Bonfire and possible alternatives. But the tradition’s future will not be discussed while lawsuits stemming from the collapse are pending, he has said.

So for now, Gates simply files the suggestions away for use at a later date.

“Who knows what the future is for Bonfire,” he said.

Filling the void

A&M senior Josh Babb, chairman of the Traditions Council, never saw Aggie Bonfire burn. He was a freshman when then-president Bowen announced in 2002 that plans to overhaul Bonfire would be shut down because of ongoing safety concerns.

The 21-year-old recalls standing in the Memorial Student Center Flag Room, where scores of Aggies gathered to learn of Bowen’s decision, as the news was broadcast on television. The reaction on the faces of the seniors — students who were freshmen the year Bonfire collapsed — surrounding him was “unreal,” he remembered.

“It was like you were taking away a piece of them,” Babb said. “Some say it was the last standing piece of what a lot of people called Old Army.”

It is obvious, Babb said, that both the Bonfire collapse and the suspension of the tradition has affected, if not divided, the university and its students.

Five years after the collapse, he said, probably two-thirds of the student body recognizes the loss of Bonfire and misses the tradition, but manages to move forward without it. The remaining third instead focuses its energy on off-campus bonfires not sanctioned by the university.

“Bonfire was here to unite a campus. It was here to unify a student body,” Babb said.

The tradition brought together Aggies from all walks of life — current and former students, those living on and off campus, members of the Corps of Cadets, football players and sorority and fraternity members, he said.

“It’s so important that we recognize Bonfire did not build Aggie spirit,” Babb said. Rather, Aggie spirit is “what pushed Bonfire for 89 or 90 years.”

That spirit is what drove students to disassemble the massive log structure in 1963 following the assassination of President Kennedy, he said, and it’s what prompted an outpouring of concern in 1999 when the 5,000 logs toppled.

Students are pushing for new activities to rekindle the Aggie spirit, he said. The recently established fall activities council has attempted to coordinate festivities leading up the annual A&M-UT football game in an attempt to fill with events a semester left empty without Bonfire.

The Farmers Fight Fest, a carnival and concert on the Simpson Drill Field in fall 2002, was one of those activities designed to give students something to do during a time previously reserved for Bonfire. But just three years removed from the collapse, many students weren’t ready for a replacement, and the festival didn’t go over well, Babb said.

But he believes the student body has become more unified in the past five years by rallying around the memory of those lost and looking to other unique traditions, such as Silver Taps, Muster and saying “Howdy” to one another while walking across campus.

“We’ve had to turn to those and look at the heart of what A&M is all about,” Babb said. “Bonfire is the single greatest loss ... this university has ever experienced, but it also has been the single most unifying loss this university ever experienced.”

‘This is their occasion’

Traditions have come and gone at Texas A&M throughout its 128-year history, as the all-male university became co-ed and membership in the Corps of Cadets become optional.

Bill Kibler, a Texas A&M student affairs administrator at the time of the Bonfire collapse, said those changes altered the face of the university, but the Aggie spirit survived.

“I’ve found the notion of Aggie spirit to be an extraordinarily resilient concept that kind of lives in hearts and souls of people,” said Kibler, who left A&M in May for Mississippi State University and is returning Thursday for the memorial service.

An immensely sad period began Nov. 18, 1999, when Bonfire toppled, former President Bowen recalled last week. Like a terrible sickness within a large family, the deaths of 11 students and one former student made many reflect on the frailties of life, he said.

“I think, in a sense, the family has moved forward after a great loss. You get about your main business and begin to function again, but I don’t think you ever put it out of your mind,” said Bowen, who stepped down in 2002 after eight years as president. “When you lose a member of your family, it affects you the rest of your life.”

Bowen, among the administrators since sued by families of the dead and those injured, said most students who were at A&M when Bonfire collapsed have graduated, and that’s a good thing. Universities continually refresh themselves with new crops of students, which allows them to look forward rather than back, he said.

But there is no shortage of those in the community — former students, administrators and rescue workers — who still think about the collapse and the pain it caused the Aggie family, he said. And that pain pales in comparison to the sadness felt by families who lost sons, daughters, brothers and sisters in the collapse.

“You can put in your soul into something like this and insulate around it, but it comes out at times,” Bowen said. “It must be very hard on the families.

“This is their occasion.”

• Holly Huffman’s e-mail address is