Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Texas A&M University Bonfire Memorial…

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At 2:42 a.m. on a cool and dark night on November 18, 1999 the unthinkable happened… The 59 foot high stack of wood known affectionately as Bonfire, built from about 5000 logs, collapsed during its construction. What made this a tragic event is that there were 58 students and former students working on the bonfire stack. As the wood stack began to fall it would twist inward and while doing so would claim the lives of 12 people. Another 27 people were injured, some severely.

Four years later that very tragic night was memorialized at the site of its occurrence with a concrete ring of architecturally placed monoliths representing each of the fallen students from that fatal 1999 bonfire.

The bonfire memorial is composed of three simple and clean design elements:

  1. Tradition Plaza – Marks the entrance to the memorial reflecting the many Aggie traditions including Bonfire.
  2. History Walk – Consists of 89 stones representing the 89 previous years of Bonfire. There is a gap within the timeline which represents when Bonfire did not burn due in 1963 due to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
  3. Spirit Ring – A ring surrounds the site of the collapse and also embodies the spirit that brought and bound these students together. Twelve monolithic portals are placed around the ring each oriented toward the student's hometown. Etchings of letters and memorials are chiseled into the granite.

Sadly this event might have never happened had the University stepped in and either condoned the event or took the necessary measures to make it engineered and safe. Nevertheless 90 years Aggie Bonfire was a long-standing tradition at Texas A&M University.

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. What started out as a heap of trash and debris burned in the early 1900’s to congratulate the football team on a recent win evolved over the years into a massive structure that was once even proclaimed to be the largest bonfire in the world according to the Guinness Book of World Records.

Although Aggie Bonfire was never a university sanctioned event it was allowed and as a result the University settled many a lawsuit for their part in the tragedy. I remember fondly Sharon and I attending several of these bonfires in the 1970’s when I was a student there. Back then the more pics 051bonfire design was a stacked “Christmas tree” shape and burned long into the night. These bonfire events were fun and charged with the energy with many Aggies all waiting for hours in anticipation for when the stack would fall.

By this time in the Aggie bonfire history the bonfire represented Aggie unity but more importantly it represented the "burning desire to beat the hell outta t.u.", a derogatory nickname for the University of Texas. Traditionally lit around Thanksgiving when Texas A&M and the University of Texas often played, football rivalry crowds ranging between 30,000 to 70,000 people would be in attendance. This continued growth each year in exuberance  inadvertently ultimately led to the tragedy…

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Within minutes of the collapse of the 1999 bonfire word of the accident spread among students and the Bryan-College Station community. Within hours the accident was the topic of headline news reports all around the world. I was in New Zealand when I first heard about it and can only remember how surreal it seemed hearing of the tragedy so far away…

The Bonfire Memorial is worth visiting when visiting the Bryan-College Station area. It celebrates the Aggie tradition along with its history and tremendous amount of spirit found in the students of Texas A&M. It also memorializes the dedication of all those involved during the horrific collapse of the 1999 Bonfire...

Walking among the monolithic portals while reading each of the etchings on their granite walls we could get a sense of the excitement, commitment and love that each of these lost lives had for their school. It is just such a shame that they lost their lives at such early ages in the pursuit of their of school’s spirit and traditions…


  1. I remember that tragedy. The Memorial is so well done. Thanks for sharing.

  2. John, whats with the outhouse on the top of the memorial stack of wood.... Just a prank to put it up there or did it have some meaning.... ?

  3. Rod, the outhouse was suppose to symbolize the University of Texas (A&M's arch rival at the time) thus you would usually see a small lettered t.u. to stand for University of Texas. The theory was if the outhouse fell before midnight the University of Texas would lose to Texas A&M...