Bonfire Tradegy

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Thousands Mourn Fallen Aggies
11/26/1999 - Friday
By GENEVA WHITMARSCH Eagle Staff Writer

Tens of thousands of silent mourners lighted candles Thursday night near the Bonfire site in honor of the 12 Aggies who died after the 40-foot stack of logs crumbled.

The vigil, and Yell Practice immediately after, replaced what would have been the school's 90th Bonfire, which represents the students' burning desire to defeat the University of Texas.

"There's still fire here tonight ... there's still a joining of spirit," said former student Todd Helms. "That's the way the people who died would have wanted it to be."

University officials estimated at least 40,000 people circled the police-tape perimeter where Bonfire stood before its collapse last week. Former president George Bush and his wife, Barbara, as well as Texas Gov. George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, were among those who attended the vigil.

As the sun set, people began lighting their candles and the crowd grew silent. Pinpoints of flickering light blanketed the site, illuminating the area where many of the estimated 5,000 logs that made up the stack before its collapse still remained.

"This is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen," said Bob Wiatt, director of the University Police Department. "There's solemnity, grief and respect on the faces of everyone out here, and I've never heard anything so quiet. You can't even hear breathing."

Many gathered at the site long before the vigil was scheduled to begin, several reading prayer cards and notes left by mourners before them. Others wept or dropped to their knees in prayer.

A&M senior Mike Maginness, a member of the Corps of Cadets, said the vigil was necessary to help the student body begin what he predicted will be a difficult healing process.

"Everyone knows what happened, but I don't think it's really set in," he said. "This might help some, but it will never really be forgotten. We all feel a tremendous sense of loss, whether we knew the people who died or not."

Gary Boening, an Edna, Texas, resident whose two children attended Texas A&M, held back tears during the vigil.

"I've always known the Aggie spirit was like this," he said. "Now, maybe the rest of the world will know."

The crowd remained silent for nearly two hours, when people began to leave to attend Yell Practice at Kyle Field. Instead of blowing the candles out, many people placed them near the perimeter and let them burn out.

"This is a really hard thing to do," said sophomore Becky Miller. "It makes everything so real, but everyone's going to leave with a renewed sense of unity."

During Yell Practice, in contrast to the vigil, students applauded and whooped as the Fightin' Texas Aggie Band played, Aggie football coach R.C. Slocum spoke and the Yell Leaders led the crowd in traditional yells.

"Everyone's been talking about a modified Yell Practice, but the only thing modified is the location," said Yell Leader Jeff Bailey. "When I think of the Aggie Bonfire, I know what makes it special is the Aggies standing around it.

"We've got to remember what Bonfire stood for," he said. "So, as we stand here tonight, I hope we yell louder, sing louder and hold each other stronger than we ever have before."

At the conclusion of the practice, the lights dimmed and a cannon fired 12 times in honor of each of the 12 victims. The football players later came onto the field for the playing of the Aggie War Hymn and then hugged several people on the sidelines who were injured when Bonfire collapsed.

The vigil and Yell Practice were a solemn end to what had been an emotional week on the A&M campus. Before sunrise last Thursday, the pyramid of logs that were to be lighted on the eve of the school's match-up with the Longhorns came roaring down.

Hundreds of students attended an impromptu memorial service Thursday at Rudder Fountain on the A&M campus. Later, mourners packed Reed Arena for an emotional service attended by Lt. Gov. Rick Perry and former President George Bush.

During the service, Aggies linked arms and singed Amazing Grace.

Later, as the Bonfire stack was taken apart and preserved for investigation, shrines grew from flowers, prayer cards and trinkets left by mourners. Pictures of the 12 victims were hung off the flag pole in front of the Administration Building, and flags across campus and around the state flew at half-staff.

As the week continued, funerals for the 12 fallen Aggies took place around the country. Thousands of mourners, many wearing ribbons in A&M's maroon and white, gathered to bid them farewell.

Memorial services also were held at various locations across Bryan and College Station for students who wanted to pay their respects to the deceased. Counselors and clergy spread throughout the city, providing counseling to the grief-stricken.

Meanwhile, the Longhorns canceled the traditional "Hex Rally" they hold to wish evil spirits on their hated rivals and instead had a service in memory of the 12 victims. Thousands of University of Texas students attended the candlelight service.

During Yell Practice on Thursday, Bailey acknowledged the Longhorns' support.

"I want to say a special thanks to that school from Austin -- that team and every person at that school," he said, after which the students applauded for several minutes.

The two schools will continue to honor the victims Friday at half-time during the game between the Aggies and the Longhorns. The bell on the Albritton Tower will sound 12 times -- once for each of the 12 students who died.

"This game could be the quietest one we've ever had, but I think it will be the loudest," Maginness said. "I think, at this game, the 12th Man will be at his best."


 

 

 

 

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