Students in charge when bonfire pile collapsed, Texas A&M says
No faculty adviser present
November 24, 1999
COLLEGE STATION, Texas (CNN) -- Texas A&M University says no faculty supervisor was on site when a bonfire logpile collapsed last Thursday, killing 11 students and a recent graduate and injuring 27 others.
University spokesman Lane Stephenson said Wednesday that the faculty adviser on the project, A&M administrator Rusty Thompson, last checked on progress at 10:30 p.m. on November 17, 3 1/2 hours before the accident. Stephenson said a group of upperclassmen known as "The Redpots" was actually "in charge" of the project.
When asked about whether the students followed rules from a bonfire safety handbook, Stephenson said standards and guidelines for building the 40-foot-high framework are "passed down from year to year and from generation to generation."
The issues of faculty supervision and adherence to bonfire safety and structural specifications were raised in news reports by Dallas TV station WFAA and the Dallas Morning News, which said the 51-page handbook was published in 1994 and that Thompson kept copies on file.
Former adviser: Safety features not followed
Another person familiar with the bonfire tradition, former Texas A&M construction science professor Larry Grosse, who was faculty adviser for the bonfire for 13 years, told WFAA he believes the students failed to follow safety features he developed during his tenure.
"There were things in place that I feel would have prevented this from ever happening," said Grosse, who now heads the construction sciences department at Colorado State University.
"Sadly, there was not someone overseeing all of this to make sure it was being done," Grosse said.
A&M: Pictures should tell real story
Asked by CNN to explain who was in charge and whether the bonfire safety handbook was being followed, Cynthia Lawson, executive director of university relations, issued a statement saying:
"We have talked to Mr. Thompson, who has spoken this morning with some of the students most directly involved in the construction of the bonfire this year. Our best information, based on that feedback, indicates that what Larry Grosse described as 'should have happened' did happen. That includes sinking the poles into the ground and interlocking the layers."
The statement went on to say, "However, we obviously want to investigate this further, just as we are doing with the many theories, suggestions and speculations that have been forthcoming since the time of the accident. Photographs and videos that are being collected should help tell the real story."
Later, Stephenson, in response to the same questions, described Thompson as a "resource in an advisory capacity. He works with the students, but ultimately the students were in charge."
Stephenson said The Redpots are a group of 18 upperclassmen led by "The Head Stack" who directly supervise the project at all times.
Texas construction law
Stephenson could not confirm or deny a report in the Morning News that freshmen and sophomores were working on the upper levels of the 7,000-log stack in violation of the safety regulations.
Ten of those killed and many of the injured were freshmen or sophomores.
One of those killed was no longer a member of the student body. Christopher Breen graduated from Texas A&M in 1998, an agricultural development major.
He had been a leader of the bonfire project while at the university and "had come back as part of a tradition" of graduates teaching undergrads on the project, said university spokesman Joseph Mills.
Questions about design and oversight of the bonfire also have prompted the state's engineering board to examine Texas construction law to see whether it applies to A&M's 90-year- old tradition.
State and local governments must file plans with the engineering board and arrange for a licensed professional engineer to supervise construction before beginning projects that involve public safety, health or welfare.
Jimmy Smith, interim executive director of the Texas Board of Professional Engineers, said the annual bonfire could be exempt because volunteers build it and because the law typically applies to public buildings.
Stephenson said he understood the bonfire was exempt from the law. "There is no question that we have been abiding," he said.
Last funeral held for victims
The last of the funerals for those killed was held Wednesday at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Nassau Bay, Texas, south of Houston, for 19-year-old sophomore Miranda Denise Adams, one of two women among the dead.
"The Aggie Battle Hymn" was among the songs sung at the funeral.
A plane carrying mourners to the funeral of bonfire victim Jeremy Frampton, 22, was grounded after a fist-size hole, possibly caused by lightning, was found in a wing flap when it arrived Tuesday at Stockton, California.
The approximately 120 passengers were stranded overnight but were expected to take another plane home Wednesday afternoon, an airport official said.
Among those in the group were A&M president Ray Bowen, Corps of Cadets Commandant Maj. Gen. Ted Hopgood, and regent Robert H. Allen. All were able to attend the funeral.
Candlelight vigil Thursday night
The bonfire, which would have been held Thanksgiving evening before Friday's annual football clash with cross-state rival University of Texas, was canceled. A sunset candlelight vigil will be conducted in its place at the accident site.
Yell practice, when students and school supporters practice their group cheers, will be held later at the stadium. But at least one yell won't be heard. Because the University of Texas has been so supportive of their mourning arch rivals, A&M students have decided not to practice yelling "beat the hell out of T.U."
The game will be played, as usual, on Friday.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Texas schools curb football rivalry to mourn log collapse victims
Texas A&M prepares for more funerals for bonfire victims
Texas A&M University
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