I was appointed to the Journalism faculty in January 1999 as a lecturer and faculty adviser for The Battalion. Bonfire fell the following November. My wife, Mary Sherwood, was a doctoral student. We lived in a one-bedroom apartment just off campus near the intersection of George Bush Drive and Wellborn Road.
Our phone rang about 3 a.m. on Nov. 18, 1999. I immediately assumed that there were production problems at the newspaper. Battalion Editor-in-Chief Sally Turner told me Bonfire had collapsed and that there were injuries. I went immediately to the newsroom in the basement of Reed McDonald.
Sally had joined another photographer, J.P. Beato, who was the first Battalion staffer on the scene. He had been chilling in a parking lot near the Bonfire site when he heard sirens then saw emergency vehicles in route. Sally had been notified by sports writer Doug Shilling, who was camping in line for football tickets to the A&M-UT game. He, too, had heard the sirens.
Sally told me later that Doug called her just as she had arrived home from putting the paper to bed. After that call, she called the press room at the Huntsville Item, where The Battalion was printed, and said those familiar but seldom used words in newspaper journalism: “Stop the presses.” Huntsville agreed to hold the press run until page one could be remade.
Staffers began gathering in the newsroom. Sally returned from the Bonfire site and began making assignments. She also got a call from the Associated Press that had received a bulletin from the College Station Eagle. The AP interviewed Sally, and for the rest of Day One, based on the AP story quoting Sally, news media across the nation began calling for updates from The Battalion editor.
My role as adviser in all this was simply to be present as a resource when asked. University policy required that The Battalion be a publication of, by and for students. Student Media advisers were not permitted to interfere in the news reporting and editing process. I critiqued the final product daily, but students and only students produced The Battalion.
Sally decided that page one would be a page of photographs. Rather than tell the story to readers, she said in the remake budget meeting, “Let’s show them.” I delivered the page one remake on a disk to an Item employee who met me at the halfway point between College Station and Huntsville. Meanwhile, continuous newsgathering had begun in The Battalion newsroom.
Frankly, much of this first-day activity is a blur. At some point, though, I took over answering the phones to deal with news-media inquiries. We were getting calls from all over the world, especially Europe and Australia. National news-media teams were arriving in College Station, and many of the photographers and news writers used The Battalion newsroom to transmit their stories. The mix of student and professional journalists covering a major news story was almost intoxicating for the high level of energy.
I do recall one phone call above all others. A producer for Bryant Gumbel’s morning show called wanting to speak with Sally. I said I’d take a message and that she’d get back to him. “Maybe you don’t understand,” he said. “I’m calling for Bryant Gumbel. He wants to interview Sally Turner.” I explained that Sally was extremely busy putting out a newspaper and that she didn’t have time to be interviewed. “If you want to cover this story,” I said, “get down here and cover it.” Several hours later, the producer called from Houston to ask how to get to College Station.
The Battalion was the first newspaper on the streets of College Station the day of the Bonfire collapse. It was about noon when it began hitting the boxes on campus and at the Bonfire site. By then, satellite trucks were beaming live coverage around the world as news helicopters hovered over the campus. The vigil had begun as first responders continued to bring out the living and the dead from a dangerously unstable pile of collapsed logs.
The real masterpiece of student journalism came with The Battalion’s second-day coverage. It speaks for itself, but I will say that I cannot, to this day, read Caleb McDaniel’s editorial without tears. Everything about these pages brings emotional memories — the photos, the writing, the presentation as newspaper design. I was deeply honored — personally and professionally — to have witnessed their achievement.
As usual, I critiqued The Batt on 11/19/1999. Here’s what I said:
I couldn’t bring myself to mark-up today’s Battalion. From Cody Wages’ splendid photo capturing the sense of 24 awful, awesome hours to Caleb McDaniel’s magnificent editorial, this edition of The Battalion serves the Texas A&M University community as nothing else can or will do.
It’s more than a keeper. It’s a monument to the staff who produced it, those with bylines and credit lines and those without.
Sally Turner’s leadership and journalistic instincts touch every page, but without her staff of editors, writers, photographers and graphic artists, none of it happens. “Teamwork” falls short of describing what happened yesterday in The Battalion newsroom. I’m not sure what single term would suffice, but it would have to capture the deep corporate spirit that sustained everyone, even when fatigue and emotional exhaustion depleted the most driven of editors. This was more than teamwork in the same way “Aggie” is more than a label to those who call each other by that name.
Ron George was the faculty adviser for The Battalion during the Bonfire collapse.