Thursday, November 24, 2011



   Aggie Bonfire was a long-standing tradition at Texas A&M University as part of the college rivalry with the University of Texas at Austin.  For 90 years, Texas A&M students—known as Aggies—built and burned a bonfire on campus each autumn. Known to the Aggie community simply as "Bonfire", the annual autumn event symbolized Aggie students' "burning desire to beat the hell outta t.u.", a derogatory nickname for the University of Texas. The bonfire was traditionally lit around Thanksgiving in conjunction with festivities surrounding the annual college football game.
   Although early Bonfires were little more than piles of trash, as time passed the annual event became more organized. Over the years the bonfire grew to an immense size, setting the world record in 1969. Bonfire remained a thriving University tradition for decades until, in 1999, a collapse during construction killed twelve people—eleven students and one former student—and injured twenty-seven others.
The accident led Texas A&M to declare a hiatus on an official bonfire. Since 2002, a student-sponsored coalition has constructed an annual unsanctioned, off-campus "Student Bonfire" in the spirit of its predecessor.

File:1928 bonfire.jpg

Early Years

   The students of the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas, known as Aggies, burned their first bonfire on November 18, 1907 to congratulate the football team on a recent win.  The first on-campus Aggie Bonfire, a heap of trash and debris, was burned in 1909 to generate enthusiasm for a variety of sporting events. A decade later, the focus of the event narrowed to the annual rivalry game between Texas A&M and the University of Texas, held near Thanksgiving Day.  Little information was recorded about the early Bonfires; the 1921 Texas A&M yearbook mentioned the "final rally" of the students before the game against Texas, but did not refer to a bonfire. Six years later, the school yearbook published a photograph of the event.
   Freshmen were expected to build the early Bonfires to help prove their worth.  For almost two decades, the students constructed Bonfire from debris and wood acquired through various, sometimes illicit, means, including appropriating lumber intended for a dormitory in 1912.  In 1935, a farmer reported that students carried off his entire barn as fuel for Bonfire. To prevent future incidents, the university made Bonfire a school-sanctioned event. The following year, for the first time, the school provided axes, saws, and trucks for the students and pointed them toward a grove of dead trees on the edge of town.
   During the 1940s, the school paper described Bonfire as "'the greatest event of the football season'".  The 1947 Corps handbook stated that "bonfire symbolizes two things; a burning desire to beat the team from the University of Texas, and the undying flame of love that every loyal Aggie carries in his heart for the school;" this was often shortened to "the burning desire to beat the hell out of t.u."  The Bonfire design changed in 1942. Universal Studios, filming the movie We've Never Been Licked on the Texas A&M Campus, built a bonfire as a prop for the movie. Their structure used a design similar to a teepee, where all the logs rested against each other in a conical shape.  The logs were placed at an angle between 23 and 30 degrees, giving it "a tremendous vertical and horizontal resistance".  This allowed Bonfire to grow from 25 feet (8 m) tall to over 50 feet (20 m) tall.  Subsequent Aggies adopted the new idea, and the teepee design became standard for Bonfires for the next twenty-five years.

File:Late 50s Aggie Bonfire.jpg

   Beginning in 1952, the bonfires were constructed entirely from fresh-cut logs.  The event suffered its first fatality in 1955, when a student was struck by a swerving car. The same year (for unrelated reasons), Bonfire was moved from Simpson Drill Field in front of the Memorial Student Center to Duncan Field, near the dorms of the Corps of Cadets (whose leaders oversaw construction). In 1957, the structure collapsed two days before Bonfire was to be held, but students worked around-the-clock to rebuild it, and the bonfire burned as scheduled.
   During this period, University of Texas students attempted several stunts, trying to light the stack early, but to no avail. In both 1933 and 1948, students from UT rented an airplane and tried to drop fire bombs onto the stack. In one of these instances, the plane ran low on fuel, and was forced to land at Easterwood Airport in College Station—the wooden portions of the plane found themselves part of Bonfire that year.  In 1956, there was an unsuccessful attempt to plant explosives at the Bonfire site and, in the late 1970s, a College Station police officer was fired after trying to ignite the bonfire several days ahead of schedule. Students spotted the officer before he could succeed and chased him across campus.  In 1999, a Longhorn fan hired someone to build a six-foot model airplane designed to carry a bomb into the wood stack to ignite it prematurely. "He was actually in the process of building that plane when they had the tragedy at bonfire," Mel Stekoll said. "At that point, we scrapped the plan. It would have been the next year that we planned to try it."


Organizational Change and Expansion

   In 1965, membership in the Corps of Cadets became voluntary for students at Texas A&M. Before, Corps leaders directed construction of Bonfire. However, because the Corps had no authority over the "non-regs", or civilian students, a separate Bonfire leadership structure was instituted. The new leaders were designated with colored hard hats, or pots, with the overall leaders known as redpots.
   The first Bonfire built with both Corps and non-reg participation was in 1963.  The stack was scheduled to burn only days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Out of respect, the students dismantled the stack.  As Head Yell Leader Mike Marlowe explained, "It is the most we have and the least we can give."
   In the following years the structure became more elaborate, and in 1967 the flames could be seen 25 miles (40 km) away. In 1969, the stack of logs set the world record for the height of a bonfire at 109 ft 10 in (33 m) tall.  Out of concern for the safety of participants and the community, the university limited the size to 55 feet (17 m) tall and 45 feet (14 m) in diameter.  As an added precaution, nearby campus buildings were equipped with rooftop sprinkler systems. Despite the new height restrictions, in the 1970s, the Guinness Book of Records listed Aggie Bonfire as the largest Bonfire in the world.

Design change

   In 1978, Bonfire shifted from its previous teepee design to a wedding cake style, in which upper stacks of logs were wedged on top of lower stacks. The structure was built around a fortified center pole, made from two telephone poles spliced together by cutting matching notches, approximately 10 feet (3 m) long, and with 5 US gallons (19 L) of glue. Four steel plates were bolted to the two poles, and a 38 inches (9.5 mm) cable wrapped around the joint and secured to the pole with steel staples. Four perimeter poles were placed 150 feet (46 m) away and ropes were stretched between the perimeter poles to center poles and tension placed on them to hold the center pole together. After the center pole was erected, logs were placed vertically around it in a multi-tiered wedding cake design composed of thousands of logs. By 1984, the logs

Chopping down tree for bonfire

were sloping only 14 degrees. The spiral arrangement of the logs was designed to make Bonfire collapse into itself in a twisting motion, thus protecting spectators. Although the tradition stated that if Bonfire burned through midnight then A&M would win the following day's football game, the introduction of the wedding cake design drastically reduced the time it took for Bonfire to fall, sometimes burning for only 30 or 45 minutes.
   While the Bonfires of the 1960s were constructed in five to ten days, working primarily in daylight, by the late 1970s, changes in the school led to a more elaborate and lengthy construction schedule.  Construction began in late October with "Cut", obtaining wood by cutting down trees with axes, which took several weekends.  After Cut, students brought the logs to campus during "Load", a process by which the logs were loaded by hand onto flatbed trucks and brought to campus.  In early November, crews began "Stack", a three-week period in which the logs were wired together and Bonfire took shape. Near the end of stack, known as "Push", students worked around the clock in rotating shifts. The first four of the six stacks were built with the efforts of all safety-trained participants. The day before Bonfire was scheduled to burn, junior redpots would build the fifth stack, and then senior redpots would build the sixth.
   To ensure safety during the Stack period, the organizers maintained a perimeter around the working area, and allowed only safety-trained students through. Cranes, donated by local construction companies, assisted in getting logs onto the upper tiers, and volunteers from those companies were on-hand at all times to offer advice. Emergency medical technicians were also required to be on site at all times and no more than 70 students at a time were allowed on the stack.  Once the stack was finished, "an outhouse painted orange [symbolizing a] t.u. frat house"was bedecked with derogatory statements about rival University of Texas at Austin and then placed on top of the stack.

Rebuilding the bonfire in 1994

   Although between two and five thousand students participated in the construction of Bonfire each year, most worked only part time, and many worked only one or two shifts. Student workers were organized by dormitories or Corps units, with a separate off-campus student team. Many former students participated with teams they belonged to as students. Each team had assigned shifts, although individuals were not limited to working only the assigned shifts.  Students working on Bonfire wore "grodes"—old t-shirts, jeans, and boots. By tradition, grodes were either not washed until after Bonfire burned or not washed at all.
   In 1983, the city of College Station began manufacturing Austin city limits signs for students to place at the summit of the Bonfire so that students would stop stealing signs from Austin.  The Fightin' Texas Aggie Band began building the outhouse, ending the tradition of stealing Bonfire's components.

1999 Collapse

   At approximately 2:42 a.m. on November 18, 1999,  the stack, consisting of about 5000 logs 40 feet (12 m) high, collapsed during construction.  Of the 58 students and former students working on the stack, 12 were killed and 27 were injured.  Within minutes of the collapse, members of Texas Task Force 1, the state's elite emergency response team, arrived to begin the rescue efforts.  Rescue operations took over 24 hours; the pace was hampered by the decision to remove many of the logs by hand for fear that using heavy equipment to remove them would cause further collapses, resulting in further injuries to those still trapped. Students, including the entire Texas A&M football team and many members of the university's Corps of Cadets, rushed to the site to assist rescue workers with the manual removal of the logs.  The Texas A&M civil engineering department was also called on to examine the site and help the workers determine the order in which the logs could be safely removed, and, at the request of the Texas Forest Service, Steely Lumber Company in Huntsville, Texas sent log-moving equipment and operators.  Bonfire survivor John Comstock was the last living person to be removed from the stack. He spent months in the hospital following amputation of his left leg and partial paralysis of his right side. Comstock returned to A&M in 2001 to finish his degree.



   Despite the university's refusal to allow Bonfire to take place on campus, a non-university sanctioned bonfire took its place. The first unofficial Bonfire since the 1930s was held in 2002 and was known as the "Unity Project." This fire consisted of three piles of wood, with the center stack being 35 feet (11 m) high.
   In 2003, the event became known as Student Bonfire. In a design approved by a professional engineer, Student Bonfire uses a wedding cake design, but, in a departure from tradition, every log in the stack touches the ground. For added support, four 24 feet (7.3 m) poles are spaced evenly around the stack and then bolted to the 45 feet (14 m) center pole with a steel pipe. These poles are known as Windle-sticks, after Levi Windle, a staunch supporter of Student Bonfire who died in an unrelated accident in 2003.  Since the group does not receive funding, Student Bonfire charges a fee to each attendee to cover expenses. Attendance for Student Bonfire ranges from 8,000–15,000 people and the event is held in Brazos County or one of the surrounding counties.
Texas Governor Rick Perry, a former redpot, predicted during a September 2009 Texas Monthly interview that Bonfire will return to campus: "I will not be surprised if it happens by 2011, maybe even 2010. I think Bonfire will be back on campus. The kids will have the experience again." Perry also indicated he would let A&M officials handle the details surrounding its return. A&M officials, however, did not agree with Perry's assertions. A&M System spokesman Rod Davis said there were no plans to return it to campus. R. Bowen Loftin, school president, stated: "I think it would take an extraordinarily large amount of interest on the part of our students for us to consider building Bonfire on campus again.

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