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Bonfire Tragedy>Story Archives>October 2000

Bonfire design evolution fueled by informal techniques

By JOHN LeBAS
Eagle Staff Writer


Like many traditions at Texas A&M University, Bonfire rarely continued one year to the next without some alteration, however slight.

This is the second 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. This series will explore events leading up to that fateful morning on Nov. 18, 1999, and how so many lives were forever changed. Stories also will discuss how Texas A&M and the tradition of Bonfire were transformed by one devastating event.

Bonfire commission report outlines roots of failure

Grief counseling continues, Aggies remember

Statewide blood drive planned to commemorate 12 who died

The special 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 master’s 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 articles.

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 We’ve 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.

Acquired experience

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 didn’t 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. “You’d write it in terms you understood and could remember and convey.”

Chain of command

Red 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 and seniors.

Centerpole pots —There are two junior and two senior centerpole pots who are responsible for splicing the two poles that make up each Bonfireƕs centerpole.

Yellow 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.

Crew chiefs —Each yellow pot has two to five crew chiefs who assist him with his duties.

Even then, 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.

Unwritten policies

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.

That’s 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 weren’t cadets, also worked on Bonfire in dormitory teams.

During Lanford’s 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 stack.

The 1999 Bonfire commission determined that such a cable may have helped “greatly reduce” the likelihood of last year’s 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.

Construction changes

During Dan Winn’s 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 at A&M.

“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 you’ll 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 doesn’t 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. That’s 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 injuries.

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 the site.

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 jlebas@theeagle.com