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Dealing with tragedy

The night Bonfire collapsed retold by professors, R.C. Slocum, football player, 1999 SBP

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Texas A&M Bonfire

Will Hurd, R.C. Slocum & professors describe the collapse and its aftermath


1999 SBP reflects on leadership challenges during tragedy

Will Hurd

Former Student Body President Will Hurd reflects on Bonfire collapse and rushing to the scene.

By Chevall Pryce

At nearly 3 a.m. Nov. 18, 1999, Will Hurd was woken up by a phone call from one of his best friends. The 22-year-old student body president of Texas A&M rushed out of his home after hearing what came from the other end of the call — Bonfire had collapsed.

Hurd, now the United States Representative for Texas’ 23rd congressional district, said he remembers every part of the night Bonfire collapsed, even 17 years later. Hurd recalls when he first left his house to assess the situation.

“I woke, threw on a sweater and when I showed up it was a scene I’ll remember forever. Just the chaos and the lights and the pile of logs,” Hurd said. “It was pretty shocking to process what actually just happened.”

Hurd said the first challenge was keeping everyone at the scene grounded and calm while the situation was assessed by first responders. With students rushing to help and overall in a panic, the chaos  wasn’t easy to quell. 

“That day it was really about working with the administration and the first responders,” Hurd said. “You have thousands of people whose buddies were under a pile of logs and their first instinct was to rush in and start pulling logs. I was trying to make sure that everybody was ready to help when first responders needed it.”

After the logs were cleared and the paramedics had given their best efforts to help those who were stuck beneath the logs, Hurd and other Aggies organized a candlelight vigil for the night before the football game. Hurd said the Aggie family pulled together during the vigil, especially when they began to sing  “Amazing Grace.”

“After the candlelight vigil was over, nobody wanted to leave because there was something powerful about being together,” Hurd said. “The crowd broke into ‘Amazing Grace’ spontaneously  and that song … Whenever I hear that song, it’s something that brings me back to that day.”

Hurd said the most difficult task he faced was reaching out to families.

“Ultimately you have 12 families who suffered one of the greatest losses a family could suffer,” Hurd said. “You also have people who were still injured and some who were in critical condition. This was a time when cell phone infrastructure was still pretty new, so with calls being made and everything like that it was still hard to get in touch with friends and family.”

Although the collapse was local, Texas schools and cities reached out to help Texas A&M. 

“The University of Texas — what they did in response was fantastic,” Hurd said. “They took their Hex Rally and turned it into a candlelight vigil. When their band played the A&M Fight Song and raised an Aggie flag, that was moving.”

While the Bonfire organization is no longer directly associated with the university, students continue to build bonfire. Hurd said it should be okay for them to do so, as long as the right precautions are taken.

“It was an important tradition for our campus, for our school and for our A&M family,” Hurd said. “As long as things are being done where we’re not putting people in harm’s way and not opening ourselves up for the potential tragedy that we saw, then that’s great.”

Hurd said that night will always be in his mind. 

“When you pull up and you see something that you had spent time building in a pile and you know 12 of your friends are under there, it’s an image you don’t get out of your head,” Hurd said. “But then you have the number of people that create memorials and people putting their Aggie Rings on it to show their support, that’s the kind of stuff that sticks with you.”


R.C. Slocum, player remember football game after collapse

Slocum

Then-head coach R.C. Slocum decided to still play in the Thanksgiving Day football game against UT following the collapse.

By Angel Franco

In the days following the collapse of Aggie Bonfire, which are described as the hardest times in A&M history, Aggieland turned to almost anything to escape the tragedy, and sports was one of those escapes. 

It was A&M tradition to burn Stack the night before the Aggies played the Longhorns for the annual Thanksgiving Day game. But in the wake of tragedy following the collapse, it was up to A&M head coach R. C. Slocum to decide whether or not the game would go on.

“It was my position that I thought we should have the game,” Slocum said. “The reason for doing that — it wasn’t because the game was so important to me. But I thought the game — with our students and with what had happened — it would all be better as an Aggie family and stick together. I thought there would be some healing for everybody and some consolation.”

After the decision was made to play the game, Slocum decided to cancel practice for the day and the players went out to the site where Stack had collapsed to help clear debris.

“Some of the seniors had gone to Coach Slocum,” said then-redshirt freshman Brian Gamble said. “They called a players-only meeting and said, ‘Hey we’re going to cancel this practice and we’re going to go out and help in the effort in clearing the logs.’ If there are people still trapped and people under there, we felt as if it was our duty as Aggies to go out and help.”

As the team prepared to face the Longhorns in the days following the collapse, Slocum told his team that the game meant more than beating their rival in a national spotlight.

“I told them we owed it to those young people who lost their lives in the accident building the Bonfire, which was symbolic to the Aggie Spirit,” Slocum said. “We owed to them to be ready and play to the best of our abilities.”

Gamble said football played an important role in helping the players escape reality for a bit, which impacted the mindset they had going into the game.

“It was an emotional time,” Gamble said. “We still had to prepare for that game. It was almost as if the event sharpened our focus. Football was a chance for us to kind of get away from everything that was going on outside those white lines we were practicing in. But as soon as you were done with practice, it was there — the events, tragedy and emotions.”

Once game day came around, Gamble said players and coaches both felt the weight of the game on their shoulders.

“Maybe we knew it, maybe we didn’t know it at the time, but we knew the game was special,” Gamble said. “Because it was Texas and the rivalry. We knew with everything with everything that happened that there was going to be more of an eye of the game. And what winning the game could do to help the healing process.”

Despite the emotional and physical toll, it took on the players, coaches and everyone involved, the Aggies prevailed both on and off the field. A&M defeated Texas 20-16 after mounting a 10-point comeback after the half.

Years later, Slocum says the game had to be one of the most stressful games he’d ever had to coach, but had no regrets in the decision he made to play the game.

“I’m thankful that we went ahead and played,” Slocum said. “We did it for all the right reasons. It went way beyond football and the game — it was something. I thought it would create an atmosphere that I thought would be helpful for the kids.”


Professors describe campus atmosphere after Stack fell

Candles

On the night before the A&M vs. UT football game, a candlelight vigil was held in honor of the victims and the injured.

 By Katy Stapp

The night Bonfire collapsed, Nancy Street didn’t know why she couldn’t sleep. 

“I don’t know why, but I was very restless and I woke up, and I remember I kind of walked around my house. I remember thinking that was very strange,” said Street, a communication professor. “And then I started hearing sirens and sirens and sirens.”  

The next morning, Street woke up to her husband Richard yelling, “Oh my god.” 

“Horror, fear,” Street said of watching the news that morning. “Our nephew was in the Corps, and we didn’t know whether he was working on Stack or not. The phone started ringing and there was confusion and disbelief.” 

Street was one of many A&M professors who heard that Stack had collapsed at 2:42 a.m. that morning. Charles Conrad, communication professor, was driving his children to school when he turned on the radio and heard the news. 

“When we started to cut through campus, everything was blocked off and there were helicopters in the air, and I was talking to my daughter saying, ‘What’s going on?’ and my five-year-old son said, ‘Why don’t you turn the radio on, Dad?’” Conrad said. “So I turned the radio on and found out what happened. That was the first news I had.”

In the hours that followed the collapse, the atmosphere on campus was perpetually somber and few people spoke.

“It was like going to a funeral,” Conrad said. “The only thing I can think of as a comparison at all is 9/11. But it was much more subdued, quiet. Partly because it took a while for us to know — they had to disassemble the stack to find out who was alive and who wasn’t.”

As the day progressed, names of the deceased were published and professors cross checked the names with their class rosters. 

“I checked my roster to see if they were any of my students,” Conrad said. “I probably shouldn’t have needed to do that because they’re all Aggies. But they’re also my students.”

In Conrad’s 10 a.m. communication theories class that day, the unit he taught focused on how rituals band communities together. He said he brought up a tragic accident during the previous fall semester in which six members of the A&M skydiving club were killed in a plane crash after take off. He mentioned the accident and then told his students, “But this is different. How?”

“I just let them talk,” Conrad said. “Some people cried, some people talked. They needed to talk about it. Giving them an opportunity to do that was my primary goal in that class, but it was also a teachable moment.”

After class was dismissed, Conrad walked to the site where Stack collapsed. 

“You could see [the volunteers] working really hard to disassemble it,” Conrad said. “Students were all around. The chain link fence became a place where people would put flowers, poems, notes on the fence. The Cushing Library ... collected all of them and put them in a collection at the library. It's still there."

Street said she was torn between acting normal and being there for her students by acknowledging the tragedy. 

“I think I kind of went into nurturance mode,” Street said “You know, ‘Don’t worry, you don’t have to take the big test.’ But out of the around 1,000 students I had at the time, 30 of them said, ‘No, we want to take the test.’ I think that was them kind of trying to hold on to normalcy.”

This year and last year, Street has taken her current freshman students out to see the Bonfire Memorial. She said although her students were only three or four years old when Stack collapsed, they relate to the tragedy all the same.

“It is a wonderful memorial. It doesn’t even seem like you’re in the same location though that Bonfire happened,” Street said. “I know that it is, but it just seems almost like two different worlds. It’s somber, it’s sweet.”

Conrad said he encourages students to read the Bonfire Commission Report in Cushing Library, which describes the factors that led to the collapse and the moments during the collapse.

"I encourage people to go out to the Memorial, but to also read the Commission Report to know the whole story, rather than just the end of the story," Conrad said.

Street said for students who visit the Memorial today and go to the Remembrance ceremony, she hopes they’re moved by the memory of the tragedy.

“I hope they gain a sense of the foreverness of being an Aggie,” Street said. “I hope they gain a sense of understanding of, ‘We will always remember.’”

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