Five years after the Stack collapse which took the lives of 12 Aggies, the Bonfire Memorial was opened on campus as a place to honor the victims of the tragedy.
Immediately following the Stack collapse, A&M began working rigorously to plan, design and construct a memorial commemorating the Aggies who died and who were injured. Performed by Overland Partners, the construction of the memorial was one of the quickest turnarounds for memorials in the United States.
Out of more than 300 entries to the Bonfire Memorial design competition, Overland Partners was selected to construct the memorial. Michael Rey, vice president of operations of Overland Partners and Class of 1999, was asked by Bob Shemwell, Class of 1982, to spearhead the brainstorming process and present ideas the company could submit for the competition to build the Bonfire Memorial.
Rey said many of the employees at Overland Partners had a personal connection to the incident, including himself and one of his colleagues, Ryan Jones, Class of 2000.
“I remember the day [Stack fell] intimately — I had a structural exam 8:30 a.m. that morning in the O&M tower,” Rey said. “Between the two of us, we knew everyone that passed and who was injured. So we had a pretty intimate connection to the event and were there when it occurred, and so it was very personable from that perspective.”
Jennifer Jones-Barbour, a former A&M communication professor, studies public commemorative memorials. She said A&M diligently gathered the committee to judge the entries to the competition, including students, faculty and parents of students who had been killed and injured in the collapse.
“They worked really hard to make sure the community was represented on the memorial committee itself and they did a number of public displays of the potential design and gave the opportunity for a public response,” Barbour said.
Barbour said an interesting aspect of the memorial is that it has two purposes: to commemorate the history of Bonfire and to remember the specific moment the tragedy occurred.
“One of the things I was struck by was when the memorial committee put together the idea of a memorial they made clear that what they were looking for was a memorial that both commemorated the Bonfire as an activity as well as recognizing tremendous profound loss that A&M experienced when the Bonfire collapsed,” Barbour said.
The construction of the Bonfire Memorial totaled an estimated $5 million. Rey said throughout the construction of the memorial, the team made sure all ideas presented during the brainstorming process were incorporated into the design in some way.
“The dimension of the ring is set by the dimensions that you had from holding other people at Bonfire; the direction of the gateways are dependent on where the individuals came from,” Rey said. “The marker of the center pole is the exact same size as the center pole that was there.”
Barbour used to take her A&M students to the Bonfire Memorial to apply concepts in class to analyze the symbolism of the memorial. She said the trips to the memorial always had a profound effect on them.
“I think one of the more meaningful experiences for people when they walk into to the memorial — that when you stand in that doorway lies the rhetoric of the 12th Man, ‘We stand for that student,’” Barbour said. “I have had students reflect that the portals have two levels of them, that you have the inside part and outside part, and students have commented that it [represented] a life unfulfilled because it is not all the way at the top.”
Reflecting on the construction process for the Bonfire Memorial, Rey said it is probably the most satisfying project he has worked on.
“A lot of people never understood this idea: ‘Why would people get together and cut down trees just to burn them?’ It was a tradition that outside the university was hard to explain, very much like our spirit is,” Rey said. “In many ways [the memorial] was symbol for that spirit, and in many ways it was told by those 12 individuals, and in many ways it is probably the clearest articulation for the outside world and how it pulled the state of Texas together.”