The Bonfire Memorial on Texas A&M’s campus is set in stone, but 12 trees planted next to it stand as living, growing monuments to the students who died the morning of Nov. 18, 1999.
Near the intramural rugby fields off of University Drive, each tree bears a plaque with the name of a fallen Aggie.
For kinesiology sophomore Kenneth Belden’s outfit in the Corps of Cadets, the tree memorializes former member of Squadron 2, Bryan Allen McClain. McClain, Class of 2002, was 19 years old when he died after the bonfire collapsed. McClain’s memorial portal says he was passionate about music and had mastered the piano and acoustic guitar. McClain loved the outdoors and would grab every opportunity to go fishing, swimming and hiking, according to the portal.
Every year right after the Bonfire Remembrance ceremony, Squadron 2 visits the tree and holds a small ceremony of their own in McClain’s honor.
“We go out to the tree and create a big circle around it,” Belden said. “We say a quick prayer, we talk about some of the things Bryan did. Then we all get down and do 102 push ups around his tree.”
Commanding Officer of Squadron 2 Greg Darrow reflected on the impact Bryan has made on the outfit so many years after the Collapse.
“It’s moving to see how much of an influence he has had on us 16 years later. It’s incredible to see how strongly influenced our outfit was by both this one cadet and by the tragedy itself,” Darrow said.
Squadron 2 also visits the tree during the year for other special occasions, including when freshmen meet their sophomores and when members earn their Corps Brass.
Squadron 17 cadets remember the member who died in the Bonfire Collapse — Jerry Don Self — by visiting his tree after the memorial ceremony.
Self, Class of 2001, studied engineering and technology and was from Arlington, Texas. He dreamed of becoming a youth minister some day.
Connor Yancy, business honors senior and commanding officer of Squadron 17, said when his outfit gets to the tree, the commanding officer for the year gives a small speech about what Self was like as an individual.
“He was selfless,” Yancy said. “During the Collapse he pointed to other people in the stack and asked that they be saved before himself. We try to be selfless in nature like Jerry was.”
The tree in Self’s honor is the center of traditions throughout the year for Squadron 17. When the outfit runs past the tree during workouts they take the time to do 17 pushups in Self’s honor. Squadron 17 members also visit the tree for important events such as earning their Corps brass.
Squadron 17’s outfit hangs a board with photographs of Self in their dormitory to remember him.
Christopher Lee Heard also died in the Bonfire Collapse. Heard was a freshman in Company K-2 at the time, and studied engineering. He had signed up to join the Marine Corps after college just days before the Bonfire Collapse. Out of respectful for Heard, K-2 encourages everyone in the outfit to go out and read Heard’s portal on their own sometime the week before Bonfire Remembrance ceremony.
“Christopher was a top notch person. Not only was he a good student and a good cadet he was everything that everyone wanted to be as an Aggie,” Company Commander Will Tabor said.
“We try to remember him every day and the way we do that most is through actions and personal conduct.”