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Aggie medics recount stories of sorrowful day

Published: Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Updated: Wednesday, July 25, 2012 21:07

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File Photo--The Battalion

Rescue workers remove an injured student from the Bonfire collapse.

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File Photo--The Battalion


Toby Hatton remembers that night in snapshots. A clear sky. Cold air. No moon.

"It was such a bad night that people don't want to talk about it," Hatton said. "If I really try and think about it, I remember stuff."

Hatton was a nurse at the time, working with the Texas A&M Emergency Care Team, which provided medics on duty at the Bonfire site. He and some of his friends had been at the site with the other medics, watching a movie and waiting for the sun to rise.

"Around 2 o'clock in the morning the movie finished, and I drove my two friends home,"

Hatton said. "As soon as I walked in the house, my cell phone rang, my house phone rang and my pager went off, all at the same time."

Elizabeth Leiter, who was on-duty with Care Team at Stack, remembers the collapse.

"I looked up and I saw the stack sort of falling over and twisting. It was dead quiet," Leiter said.

She and the others ran to help the injured. "The first thing I remember was stumbling across a few bodies that were laying on the ground. I knew looking at them that they were dead."

Care Team members circled the Stack, triaging those injured in the collapse. Leiter spoke to an injured student but was unable to help.

"He was pinned under the logs. He was alone," Leiter said. "He wanted me to stay with him and hold his hand and tell him everything was going to be OK, but I couldn't. I told him I'd come back as soon as I could."

Several minutes later, once all the injured had been triaged, Leiter returned to find the student dead.

Soon, Care Team was joined by Texas A&M EMS and University police, as well as the Bryan and College Station fire departments.

"When I arrived, it was very dark still. They were just putting up the police line tape. People had flashlights. People were pulling their cars up to shine their headlights on the collapse," Hatton said.

Jay Sartain arrived on site around the same time as Hatton. Sartain was a captain in TAMU EMS, a member of the Corps of Cadets and a senior psychology major at A&M.

"The first person that I came upon when I was standing upon the logs was Tim Kerlee Jr. He was very badly injured," Sartain said.

"I went up to him and asked him what's the problem. He told me, 'I'm OK. Please help my buddies - they're trapped below me.' That's the most poignant thing about Bonfire. There's this kid, and he has severe injuries, fatal injuries, and he's telling me to go help those people."

Many of Hatton's friends were also in the Corps of Cadets, including Bryan McClain. Hatton knew that McClain had been working on site that night. As Hatton approached the Stack, he was stopped and told to put on a pot. Though he did not have one, there was a pot on the ground a few feet from the collapse. It was McClain's.

"When I put it on, I knew he wasn't ever going to be wearing it again," Hatton said. "I knew that Bryan was dead."

Hatton remembers little more than a scene of chaos.

"You could hear people screaming from within the collapse itself. People moaning. People saying they need help over here, they need help over here," Hatton said. "From when I got there to about 5 or 6, I really don't remember anything."

The worst part, Hatton said, were those who were trapped alive within the Stack. Because the Stack twisted as it collapsed, the logs were intertwined with each other. Moving one log would cause other logs to shift, possibly causing further injury to those trapped inside.

"You'd hear a call for help, and it got fainter as the night went on and into the morning, and it stopped when the sun came up. By this time, we knew we wouldn't be able to get to them without Bonfire collapsing more on top of them and killing them. You would hear it and it would stop, and you'd think they had finally passed away. Each time it would get less and less audible," Hatton said.

"You couldn't get there and help them. You couldn't comfort them. You couldn't do anything."

Toby Hatton doesn't know how many people he helped that night.

"I block out the part where for seven hours I stood there holding a bag of IV fluids in each hand, watching them slowly meticulously lifting logs off a body and lifting the body up so we could get to the one underneath who was alive," Hatton said.

"My friend sacrificed his life so the other one could live. He was holding the logs off of him just enough so that he could survive."

Standing at the perimeter, Bryan's friends saw that Hatton was wearing Bryan's pot. They called to him, asking if Bryan was still alive.

"I knew that Bryan was dead, but I couldn't tell anyone," Hatton said. "His friends were asking me. I couldn't tell them."

When Hatton was relieved later that morning, he took Bryan's pot to his commanding officer so it could be given to his parents. Though the official announcement had not been made, Hatton told Bryan's buddies that he had died.

"I went ahead and told them, told them all. I've dealt with patients dying and telling families, but it's definitely a lot different when it's a friend of yours," Hatton said. "These were really good friends, basically family."

Sartain said the magnitude of the event didn't impact him until the next day.

"When you're up there in your emergency medical mode you aren't thinking about that. It's just your work, you're trained to do it, and you just do your job," Sartain said. "It didn't really dawn on me until I had a chance to pause and think about it."

After the collapse, most TAMU EMS and Care Team members withdrew from public, Hatton said. Occasionally, due to the presence of reporters, they required a police escort.

"Most of us did not go to the memorial that night or the next day. I don't know if it was from being tired or just not wanting to face it," Hatton said. "I really don't talk about it much."

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