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Bonfire Tragedy>Story Archives>October 2000

Brown pot after Bonfire accident: looking back and looking onward

By KELLY BROWN
Eagle Staff Writer

Standing nearly 60-feet up on the fourth stack of Bonfire, Chip Thiel and three of his close friends talked about how the memories made there were forever, unequal to anything life had offered them so far.

It was the middle of the night Nov. 18, 1999, and a chill hugged the Polo Fields where the 2-million pound stack of logs grew with each shift reporting to duty during its last week of construction on the Texas A&M University campus.

“It started shaking and I heard Chris Breen say, ‘What the hell,’” Thiel said. “I kept thinking it was going to stop. It didn’t. The stack just crumbled. They went one way and I went the other. Why I jumped, I do not know. I’ll never know.”

This is the third of a seven-part series of articles that will explore the great tradition of Bonfire through the generations and the fateful collapse of the structure last year that killed 12 and injured 27.

Investigations continue into Bonfire accident

Bonfire crane operator tells of nightmare as scapegoat

Petition asks for student participation in Bonfire cut

Memorials and student quotes

Two of his friends fell straight down. The other was crushed by the heavy timber. All three died.

“I heard this chainsaw and was told later that I was entangled in some ropes somewhere and was hanging along the second stack of logs,” Thiel said. “I had hit a few things on the way down, bounced around and ended up where they had to cut the ropes away from me.”

The next thing the Livingston native remembers is lying on the ground and seeing a plume of dust showering the area.

“Are you alive? Can you breathe?” were the questions his friends asked.

But Thiel had his own question: “I was asking where Chris, Jeremy and Jerry were.

One of the guys gave me a hug and started crying, telling me I wasn’t going to die.”

The bond that tied these four young men was based on the title they held: each was a brown pot, which is a leadership position held within one of the school’s esteemed traditions. They were in charge of equipment and helping other leaders with organizational chores. None was scheduled to work the midnight-to-6 a.m. shift, but were at the site for a different kind of duty: Passing down the “pot” to the younger guy next in line.

To them, it was like a family.

They had quickly climbed to the top to commemorate the fact that Thiel, a senior, would be passing the torch to his “son,” Jerry Don Self, a 20-year-old junior. Jeremy Frampton, 22, was Thiel’s “dad,” and Chris Breen, a 25-year-old alumni who drove in from Austin for the event, was Thiel’s “great-great grandfather.” All three students were members of the Corps of Cadets.

Like 27 others that morning, Thiel was rushed to the hospital. His left leg and ankle were broken in 10 different places and his lung was punctured. He underwent about nine hours of surgery before being wheeled into the recovery room.

“I remember seeing my girlfriend, Stephanie, my family and all my friends — they lined the entire hallway of the hospital and they were cheering. It was good to see them,” Thiel said, smiling.

That feeling of happiness was one he would struggle with in the following months: He survived the 124-year-old school’s worst disaster, but his buddies did not. Neither did nine other Aggies whose lives were swallowed in an instant.

“Why I’m here and why I survived I’ll never know, but I can’t question it,” he said. “In the hospital, I asked a lot of those questions, but my dad just told me that God has a plan and that there’s a reason I’m here. I just need to accept that.”

But Thiel said he will never be able to forget.

“I don’t believe in closing any doors because you can’t do that and be done with it,” he said. “I don’t want to forget my friends. I don’t want to forget Bonfire. I just can’t dwell on it or live in that moment. I have to move on without forgetting. But closure? I don’t think there is such a thing.”

Defending a tradition

“I was one of the people who didn’t get to go to the funerals,” Thiel said, adding that he had to rely on video tapes. “I’d like to go to the cemeteries. That’s important to me.”
Thiel said he keeps in touch with families of the friends he lost.

On more than one occasion in the past year, Thiel said he has had to defend their actions and their Bonfire.

The group of friends had “a few beers” in celebration of the evening and toxicology reports later would prove that. But when the tests taken at the hospital showed high levels that didn’t make sense to family members or friends who saw them that evening, a second test was done. The results came back with lower levels.

Reports filed later said the tests were inconclusive.

Thiel does not want to discuss the alcohol question, saying “there’s no way anyone could climb up that stack drunk. No one was drunk. It was blown way out of proportion.”

Every other year since he was in the sixth grade, Thiel spent one day on campus in the fall — thanks to his father, who was an Aggie. The occasion was the A&M football game against the University of Texas.

Once he learned about the event that kicked off the rivalry he was hooked.

“I had seen Bonfire burn on television over the years and heard the stories about ‘if it falls before midnight it means we’re going to lose the game against t.u.,’” Thiel said. “But once I got here and started working on Bonfire, I knew it was for me. It was a perfect fit.

“I’m from a small town and my dad always had me fixing fences or doing other outdoor stuff,” he said. “The people who worked on Bonfire were my kind of people.”

Thiel said the leadership skills learned through Bonfire are unlike anything he’s ever learned in school or elsewhere.

“There’s no application process to be a brown pot or a red pot (which is the group in charge of the construction process),” Thiel said. “The leaders are picked by their work ethic and their leadership abilities demonstrated, unlike other university organizations where they have to go through an application and selection process.”

Thiel recognizes he’s come a long way in the past year and is able to recognize issues he might not have been able to last year at this time.

“I now know that to keep some kind of Bonfire on this campus we’re going to have let change happen,” he said, adding: “When it burns, nothing compares to it. It’s just awesome. And to know that you were a part of it, to know you busted your butt to get it done, well, it’s just incredible.”

So when Texas A&M University President Ray Bowen announced in June that the tradition was put on hold for two years while students, staff and faculty revise it from top to bottom, and hire a professional engineer to design the new, downsized stack, Thiel was disappointed.

“But I understood,” he said. “This is an institution and there’s a lot of procedures that must be gone through to get to where the university needs to go.”

Rehabilitation

Thiel was out of a wheelchair within weeks of the accident and put down his crutches for good after three months. Physical therapy lasted through May. The steel rod in his leg is not a feeling he forgets for very long. But he doesn’t feel sorry for himself either.
“My body aged 10 years that morning and now my knees and legs are like that on an old man,” Thiel said. “I think sometimes about how that might affect me interacting with the kids I hope to have one day. But I can’t complain because I’m alive, you know?”

And so he said he must take advantage of the life he knows he came within inches of losing.

“A lot of things have changed this past year,” he said. “The main thing is I am missing three friends. I think about it every single day. But they wouldn’t want it to destroy other people’s lives who they cared about.”

The accident strengthened the relationship he had with his girlfriend, Stephanie McElwee, who, at the time, was a senior agriculture business major.

“My relationship with her just kept getting better and she, along with my family, my parents and my sisters, helped me get through this whole thing,” he said. “I think what Stephanie and I have survived together is the best thing to come out of this for me.”
The young woman he met and fell in love with the summer before the collapse helped put life in perspective for Thiel, who proposed to her several weeks ago on a rainy night that virtually ended the drought in Brazos County.

He didn’t have to think long about where to pop the question.

“There was no doubt — it had to be the place that has come to mean so much to both of us,” he said referring to the grassy Polo Fields where memories of disaster mix with the best times of his life.

“It was pouring down rain and I made her get out of my truck, took the roses from the tool box and got down on one knee,” he said. “I asked her to marry me and then put the ring on the wrong finger. But she still said yes.”

Thiel said he feels like he’s getting healthier mentally and physically each day. Despite the emotional year, his school work hasn’t suffered: Taking 17 hours this semester — the toughest course load he’s ever enrolled in — he has a 3.1 GPR.

“I think I’ve grown up a lot this past year,” he said. “It’s not the way I wanted to grow up, but I’m grateful that I have the opportunity.”


He’s also moved by a gesture on the part of Jeremy Frampton’s family. The scholarship awarded by the university in Frampton’s name was given to Thiel.

“I couldn’t believe it when I got the letter — I just cried,” he said, adding that he will be lighting a candle during the remembrance ceremony scheduled for the one-year anniversary at 2:42 a.m. Saturday on the Polo Fields.

“What an honor,” he said. “I don’t know how I’ll feel being out there at that time with all those people and the families. I can’t even imagine what it will be like for them.”
After graduation and his July wedding to Stephanie, Thiel said he plans to start a career as a financial planner in the Bryan-College Station area.


“I’ll do what everybody does after graduation,” he said. “I’ll look for a job. I don’t want to leave this town. It’s a good place to raise a family and it’s close to the university I love. This is where we want to be.”

Kelly Brown’s e-mail address is kbrown@theeagle.com