Tragedy>Story Archives>October 2000
design evolution fueled by informal techniques
Eagle Staff Writer
Like many traditions at Texas A&M University, Bonfire rarely
continued one year to the next without some alteration, however
commission appointed to investigate the deadly 1999 Bonfire collapse
would later find that small changes in the construction process
over time contributed to the accident.
Several former student leaders of the annual project said tweaking
was motivated by a desire to help the logs stand longer when burning
not by fear of a premature collapse.
None of these things we really tried because we were worried
about it falling over, said Dan Winn, who was a red pot while
a student at A&M. Winn worked on Bonfires from 1978 throughout
the 1980s, even returning to campus after earning his masters
degree, to advise student leaders.
They always fell quickly [after being lit], said Winn,
who now lives in Bedford, Texas. I never saw one last more
than 30, 45 minutes until about 1984.
Each year, new building methods changed the Bonfire blueprint
which was never formally documented but passed down through handwritten
diaries and personal experience.
For its investigation, The Special Commission on the 1999 Aggie
Bonfire pieced together a history of Bonfire by examining old photos
and videos, testimonials from former participants and newspaper
Bonfire reportedly began in 1909 before the annual football game
against the University of Texas. As the tradition progressed, it
came to represent the Aggies burning desire to beat
the hell out of the Longhorns.
For decades, Bonfire consisted of a heap of trash and scrap wood
scavenged from the rural area near the fledgling A&M campus.
A 1928 photograph of Bonfire, a jumble of flammable material, shows
the famed Academic Building in the background.
The annual scrap pile was made famous in the 1943 film Weve
Never Been Licked.
At some point, students began building Bonfire regularly on Simpson
Drill Field, near the site where the Memorial Student Center now
stands. It would be relocated south in 1955 to Duncan Field, near
the Corps of Cadets dorms.
Centerpoles were introduced in 1945. They served as the spine of
the structure, which each year grew bigger and more complex. Centerpoles
continued to be used through the 1999 Bonfire.
At the same time, Aggies began building Bonfire with a more regular,
teepee-shaped design. Photographs show the logs were leaned inward
to form a cone around the centerpole, which protruded from the top.
Heights ranged from 25 to 75 feet.
But the teepee shape only allowed Bonfire to be as tall as the longest
log. To create bigger stacks, students adopted a multi-tier design
in the 1960s. In 1969, the centerpole reached 109 feet, making it
the tallest Bonfire on record.
The university later limited the height to 55 feet because of safety
concerns, although the commission found evidence the limit was routinely
surpassed. In 1985, the height to the outhouse that traditionally
tops centerpole was more than 80 feet.
Bob Lanford, a 1970 graduate who was one of three red pots his junior
and senior years, helped build that record Bonfire. Lanford said
students didnt make small changes in Bonfire during the years
he participated, instead sticking to the design used through much
of the 1960s.
It was a learned experience, and we kept a log like
class notes, Lanford said. Youd write it in terms
you understood and could remember and convey.
pots These are seniors who direct and supervise
the construction process. Each has an equal amount of authority,
but individual responsibilities.
Junior red pots As the name implies, they are
juniors who answer to the seniors. Junior red pots are responsible
for the physical management of the student workers.
Brown pots Brown pots are senior coordinators
who help junior red pots and act as liaisons between juniors
pots There are two junior and two senior centerpole
pots who are responsible for splicing the two poles that make
up each BonfireÕs centerpole.
pots All non-Corps male dorms and off-campus Aggies
have a yellow pot. They are in charge of organizing and leading
the students for all Bonfire activities. They supervise their
people at the cut and stack sites.
chiefs Each yellow pot has two to five crew chiefs
who assist him with his duties.
the goal was to keep Bonfire standing past midnight as it burned.
From that goal arose the tradition that if the stack stood until
12 a.m., A&M would beat UT in the football game.
The centerpole of the wedding-cake structure was made of two logs
that were bolted and spliced together with rope, Lanford said. Crews
used pulleys and cranes to lift logs, building the stack around
centerpole from four sides at once.
That was done because red pots thought it helped keep Bonfire symmetrical,
said Lanford, who was a cadet.
Lanford described the 1969 Bonfire as wedding-cake style, but pictures
from that era indicate the tiers were not topped off as evenly as
they were in later years. That and the lean of the logs helped the
stack maintain a hint of the teepee shape.
The process of interlacing the tiers by allowing some logs
to protrude into the level above was used as early as 1969,
Lanford said. The commission more than 30 years later found evidence
that interlacing, considered beneficial to stack strength, had been
replaced by a wedging of logs, contributing to the 1999 collapse.
Lanford said safety during those late-1960s Bonfires was a concern
typically addressed by unwritten policies. Crews used a buddy system
while working; no freshmen or sophomores were allowed on the stack;
and no alcohol was allowed within the construction perimeter.
At the time, different units within the Corps had specific jobs,
Lanford said. Some worked exclusively on cutting logs, others hauled
wood to the construction site or built the stack. The jobs freshmen
started with became their areas of expertise over four years.
Thats a departure from modern times, when many workers did
a little bit of everything while building Bonfire. Something else
changed: Lanford said participation in the tradition was mandatory
for Corps members. Non-regs, students who werent
cadets, also worked on Bonfire in dormitory teams.
During Lanfords time, each log on the stack was tied to the
others with baling wire. Lanford, who said he climbed the stack
as a returning red pot as recently as 1997, noticed logs in recent
years were not always individually wired.
Other construction elements changed over the years. When Lanford
was a student, centerpole was sunk into the ground, but not other
logs. Nor did students wrap cable around the bottom level of the
The 1999 Bonfire commission determined that such a cable may have
helped greatly reduce the likelihood of last years
collapse. Beginning with the second Bonfire stack in 1994, and perhaps
earlier, and continuing until 1998, steel cables were wrapped around
the first stack at interim points during construction.
During Dan Winns time at A&M in the late 1970s and early
1980s when the modern Bonfire emerged crews still
avoided cinching a cable around the Bonfire.
Winn said he only remembers students doing that once while he was
The problem you had doing that is, those logs are never going
to be perfectly tied, said Winn, who earned a degree in building
construction. You start pulling on them like that, and youll
end up worse than where you started.
By the late 70s, he said, students were also digging logs
other than centerpole into the ground for added stability. And,
after they topped off each tier with chainsaws, they dropped the
tops into spaces between those logs.
Doing that, leaders thought, kept the structure from burning so
fast. They also hoped it would reduce the spiraling effect of collapsing
Bonfires, although Winn doesnt remember that changing much.
Other steps were taken to try to further strengthen the stack. Red
pots at this point wrapped steel cable around the centerpole splice,
in addition to rope and bolts.
At the time, Winn said, stacks still had a teepee look to them,
even though they were tiered. Thats because typically the
top two or three stacks were put on by red pots in the final hours
of construction and not trimmed or topped.
Students at the time also put up logs with a noticeable lean toward
centerpole, maintaining a more cone-like shape. The commission report
found that, by 1999, logs were standing dangerously straight, increasing
outward forces that contributed to the collapse.
Bonfire remained largely unchanged throughout the 1980s and 1990s,
except when the university again relocated it in 1992 to the Polo
Fields at the northeast corner of campus. It was the smaller changes,
largely undetectable from one year to the next, that the commission
faulted in the 1999 collapse.
For their report, investigators created a composite design from
Bonfires that burned in the past two decades. During that time span
another collapse occurred, but with enough warning to avoid any
It was the week before the 1994 Bonfire was to burn, and 18 inches
of rain drenched the Bryan-College Station area during that time.
The ground underneath the stack of logs shifted, causing the base
of the structure to buckle.
Bonfire leaders decided to topple the nearly finished stack and
start building again. In a round-the-clock effort, crews completely
reassembled Bonfire and it burned on time.
After the 1994 collapse, crews laid more than two tons of lime on
the Bonfire grounds, student leaders told The Bryan-College Station
Eagle in 1998. The lime made the earth as hard as concrete, and
four subsequent Bonfires stood straight even as heavy rains pounded
By 1999, though, other changes had combined to set up a disaster,
the commission found. As a result of wedging, ground slope and other
factors, wires on the logs began breaking, support on one side shifted,
guy wires snapped, massive logs fell into the gaps and the third
and fourth-level logs shifted.
Eleven students and one former student were killed when the thousands
of logs crashed to the ground in a matter of seconds, crushing most
of its victims. Twenty-seven other students were injured.
John LeBas e-mail address is