Bonfire remembrance

Cadets stand shoulder-to-shoulder at the Bonfire Memorial during the 2018 Bonfire Remembrance ceremony. 

In the cold early morning hours of Sunday when campus is usually deserted, hundreds of Aggies will make their way to the Bonfire Memorial to remember the 12 Aggies who died after the stack collapsed at 2:42 a.m. on Nov. 18, 1999.

This year’s Bonfire Remembrance will mark the 19th anniversary of the collapse of Aggie Bonfire, which killed 11 students and one former student and injured 27. The ceremony begins at the time the stack fell in 1999 and is a somber reminder of the lives cut short.

Technology management senior Stephanie Chheng, a member of Traditions Council’s Bonfire Remembrance Committee, said the ceremony is all about letting the families of the deceased know their children are still remembered.

“The Aggie Spirit is so palpable during the ceremony,” Chheng said. “I can’t even put it into words. It’s really powerful to see so many Aggies gathered for people they probably didn’t know.”

The Yell Leaders start Remembrance by reciting the poem “The Last Corps Trip” because that was traditionally how Burn Night began. Then the names of the 12 are read out, and “Here” is said in reply to each. Typically, songs including “Amazing Grace” and “The Spirit of Aggieland” are sung to close out the night.

Distinguished professor of English Margaret Ezell, who has been teaching at A&M since 1982, heard about A&M traditions from her Aggie grandfather when she was growing up and remembers Bonfire before the collapse.

“Most people enjoyed the tradition of Bonfire, but there were concerns about safety because it was getting enormous,” Ezell said. “The partial collapse a couple years before worried a lot of us. I learned about the collapse later in the morning because I was taking my husband in to be treated for cancer. I saw the news on the TV mid-morning, and it was shocking. We were hoping they would not find anyone underneath, but it was incredibly sad and heartbreaking.”

The 1999 tragedy was caused by structural unsoundness of the stack. The collapse sparked controversy over the university’s failure to ensure safety during such a large construction project undertaken by students. It prompted an outpouring of grief from the campus community, including a candlelight vigil on the night Bonfire would have burned.

“It’s hard to describe the atmosphere of campus the next day,” Ezell said. “The trauma was terrible — there were very few undergraduates who didn’t know someone who was hurt or involved. It wasn’t isolated; it was like a shockwave.”

In addition to the ceremony, the MSC Hospitality is offering free tours of the Bonfire Memorial from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Sunday, including information on the history of Bonfire and the symbolism of the Memorial. A reflections display memorializing the lives lost is currently set up in the MSC Flag Room.

“As an Aggie, Remembrance is an experience you kind of need to have,” Chheng said. “It’s an integral part of A&M’s history, and it really puts things in perspective. It exemplifies what it means to be an Aggie.”

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