As the anniversary of Bonfire Collapse approaches, students remember those who passed away in the tragedy and share how, after two decades, Bonfire still strives to embody the spirit of those fallen Aggies.
At 2:42 a.m. on Nov. 18, 1999, the Aggie Bonfire collapsed, killing 12 Aggies and injuring 27. This was a time of mourning for not just members of the Aggie family but for onlookers all over the world. This year, on the 21st anniversary, many will make their way to the Bonfire Memorial to remember their loved ones or honor fellow Aggies.
Bonfire began as a tradition showcasing the Aggies’ burning desire to beat their football rivals, the Texas Longhorns. Now, Student Bonfire is no longer affiliated with Texas A&M University, but still describes itself as “the undying flame of love that every loyal Aggie carries in their heart for the school.”
Student Bonfire member and recreational parks and tourism sciences junior Samantha Wright said their organization is one of the few environments where students can still get an “Old Army” feeling.
“Bonfire before 1999 carried a lot of the spirit of what Aggieland was back then,” Wright said. “Everyone was a part of it, every dorm had a crew, the whole state of Texas knew what it was. Now, we do our best to carry on the spirit, but with a lot of new safety measures.”
Student Bonfire member and bioenvironmental science senior Keagan Hathorn said as a result of the tragedy the organization emphasizes new safety precautions.
“There’s a lot of similar hierarchy and leadership, but one of the biggest differences is that we make it a priority that every log included in Bonfire touches the ground,” Hathorn said. “Before, Bonfire was assembled like a wedding cake with a lot of layers that made it super tall. This looked cool but was ultimately unsafe.”
On the day of Remembrance, Student Bonfire shuts down all operations. Wright said the organization encourages members to attend the Bonfire Memorial Ceremony in lieu of assembling logs.
“We don’t work from the night of the 17 to the morning of the 18,” Wright said. “We go to the ceremony without anyone wearing Student Bonfire apparel because we don’t want to make it about us in any way.”
Hathorn said it’s especially important to remember the young individuals who passed away because they show that life can’t be taken for granted.
“There were 12 people that passed away and six of them were freshman,” Hathorn said. “They were only here for three or four months at that time. They were people just like us who had hopes, dreams, aspirations and had done things in high school that made them stand out as leaders. They never got the chance to live out their lives and never got to reap the benefits of going to A&M; so it’s our responsibility to do so.”
Student Bonfire member and English senior Haley Wingate said the collapse shook Aggieland to its core but shaped the student body in a way that has never been seen before.
“Tragedies shape us as humans, they make us face our own mortality and they change us,” Wingate said. “Our culture here at Texas A&M is built upon the idea that once an Aggie, always an Aggie, and not even death can stand in the way of that bond.”
Though many people think of football and yells when they think of A&M, Wingate said these are not the only things that make the school special.
“It’s the care and honor, the camaraderie and loyalty not just to our school, but to each other,” Wingate said. “When one of our own falls, we stand in honor for them and never let them fade from memory. The tragedy is held in our minds in the same way that we see the death of every Aggie we honor at Silver Taps and Muster: death isn’t the end, their spirits live on through us.”
For those interested in visiting the Bonfire Memorial but will not be on campus, a virtual tour is available. The tour gives an in-depth look at the history of Bonfire and the lives of the 12 Aggies that passed away in its collapse.