Student Perceptions

Students, former students, families and friends gather around the Bonfire Memorial during the early morning of Nov. 18, 2016.

Tragedy struck when, 18 years ago, Bonfire collapsed, killing 12 Aggies and injuring 27 others. This event instantly reshaped a 92-year-old tradition and changed Aggieland in ways nobody could have expected when that fateful night began.

Effects of the fall can still be seen in the student body today, despite the fact that most current students were under the age of five during the 1999 Bonfire. While current students may not have their own memories of the tragedy, many have deep connections through relatives, campus organizations and traditions. It is their perceptions of the A&M tradition and their roots in the Aggie family which move students to participate in solemn ceremony to reflect on those who were lost.

Every year, a Bonfire Remembrance ceremony is held at the Bonfire Memorial on Nov. 18 at 2:42 a.m., the exact time the stack fell. Nursing junior Hannah Winkle said she was overwhelmed by the number of students who attended and the mournful tone of the night when she went to honor the 12 during her freshman year at A&M.

“I remember that in the middle of the ceremony you sing the Spirit of Aggieland,” Winkle said. “Normally, we sing it at the football game or Midnight Yell and everyone sings really loudly and proud. It was a very stark contrast to the way it was sung at the Bonfire Memorial because it was very somber and quiet.”

The Remembrance Ceremony was not Winkle’s first experience at the memorial. When she was visiting A&M during her junior year of high school she walked through with her father, who had experienced Bonfire first hand when he was a student. Winkle was able to hear her father’s memories of Bonfire before the collapse and watch his reaction as they both explored the memorial for the first time.

“This was one of the first things I saw on A&M’s campus because it was one of the first times that I came and visited, so it kind of set the stage of ‘what is A&M’ and the idea of remembering our Aggie family,” Winkle said.

In 2002, the same year that University President Ray Bowen announced that the university would not sponsor Bonfire, therefore Student Bonfire began as an event completely independent from Texas A&M University. For crew member and communication junior Rachel Swindell, participating in Student Bonfire is a way to honor the students from 1999.

“Each individual crew will take their freshmen out [to Bonfire Memorial] usually at the beginning so they can see why we build because it is for the 12, we do build to honor them,” Swindell said. “Yes, it’s fun and you make a lot of great friends, but ultimately the goal is to keep the tradition alive for the 12 so they didn’t die in vain.”

Swindell said she had visited the memorial before coming to A&M but it didn’t truly affect her until after she joined Student Bonfire.

“After first cut my freshman year, I went back to Bonfire Memorial and I was reading everything really in depth,” Swindell said. “I remember reading Jamie Lynn Hand’s letter to her mom on her portal. She was basically going over what everything is at a cut, like pushing and carrying logs  and all this stuff that I am still doing almost 20 years later. It is all so similar. I remember reading it and thinking, “Wow, I’m doing what she did,’ and I started crying.”

Student Bonfire and the Bonfire Remembrance ceremony greatly influenced communication sophomore Giovanni Cammer’s perception of A&M as a whole. While Aggieland was not his first choice for college, Cammer said it he felt at home when he got involved in these ways.

“We all go out at 2 a.m. and walked from our dorms in silence all the way until the Bonfire Memorial,” Cammer said. “We ended up staying up until 5 a.m. talking to people who were actually at collapse and discussing stories. My friend had just lost one of her best friends so we were very emotional from the start, and to hear it from someone who had lost a friend that long ago and yet they still made an effort to come out — I was just crying.”

According to Winkle, honoring the 12 who died during the collapse is an important tradition on campus and deserves proper recognition.

“I think that A&M is really well known for Silver Taps and Muster but it should also be known for Bonfire [Remembrance Ceremony] because it is remembering those people that were in our Aggie family, and that’s something that is really important in the community and culture at A&M,” Winkle said. 

Megan Rodriguez is a communication senior and editor-in-chief for The Battalion.

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