Tragedy>Story Archives>October 2000
pot after Bonfire accident: looking back and looking onward
Eagle Staff Writer
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 didnt. The stack just crumbled. They went one
way and I went the other. Why I jumped, I do not know. Ill
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
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 wasnt
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 schools 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 Thiels
dad, and Chris Breen, a 25-year-old alumni who drove
in from Austin for the event, was Thiels great-great
grandfather. All three students were members of the Corps
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 schools worst
disaster, but his buddies did not. Neither did nine other Aggies
whose lives were swallowed in an instant.
Why Im here and why I survived Ill never know,
but I cant 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 theres a reason Im here. I just
need to accept that.
But Thiel said he will never be able to forget.
I dont believe in closing any doors because you cant
do that and be done with it, he said. I dont want
to forget my friends. I dont want to forget Bonfire. I just
cant dwell on it or live in that moment. I have to move on
without forgetting. But closure? I dont think there is such
Defending a tradition
I was one of the people who didnt get to go to
the funerals, Thiel said, adding that he had to rely on video
tapes. Id like to go to the cemeteries. Thats
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 didnt
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 theres
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
Once he learned about the event that kicked off the rivalry he was
I had seen Bonfire burn on television over the years and heard
the stories about if it falls before midnight it means were
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.
Im 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 hes ever learned in school or elsewhere.
Theres 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
Thiel recognizes hes 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
were going to have let change happen, he said, adding:
When it burns, nothing compares to it. Its just awesome.
And to know that you were a part of it, to know you busted your
butt to get it done, well, its 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 theres a lot of procedures that must be gone through to
get to where the university needs to go.
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 doesnt feel sorry for himself
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 cant complain because Im alive,
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 wouldnt want it to destroy other
peoples 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
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
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 didnt 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 hes getting healthier mentally and
physically each day. Despite the emotional year, his school work
hasnt suffered: Taking 17 hours this semester the
toughest course load hes ever enrolled in he has
a 3.1 GPR.
I think Ive grown up a lot this past year, he
said. Its not the way I wanted to grow up, but Im
grateful that I have the opportunity.
Hes also moved by a gesture on the part of Jeremy Framptons
family. The scholarship awarded by the university in Framptons
name was given to Thiel.
I couldnt 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 dont know how
Ill feel being out there at that time with all those people
and the families. I cant even imagine what it will be like
After graduation and his July wedding to Stephanie, Thiel said he
plans to start a career as a financial planner in the Bryan-College
Ill do what everybody does after graduation, he
said. Ill look for a job. I dont want to leave
this town. Its a good place to raise a family and its
close to the university I love. This is where we want to be.
Kelly Browns e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org