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Bonfire Tragedy

Nov. 18, 1999, 9:49PM
Aggie Bonfire holds distinction as Texas symbol
`Flame of love' has burned since 1909

Before the Aggie Bonfire became a symbol of tragedy Thursday, it was a symbol of history and controversy, rivalry and comedy, revelry and lunacy, technology and thievery.

Its importance as a Texas tradition is demonstrated even in miniature: The Christmas model train exhibit at the Galleria in Houston has featured little locomotives on a state "tour," chugging past a tiny Astrodome, a tiny skyscraper, tiny oil fields -- and a replica of the bonfire.

The bonfire has been described in university publications as "a flame of love" for Texas A&M. Saying it has a rich background etched into the hearts of Aggies is an understatement akin to saying computers are important to the new economy.

It's an apt comparison, too. In 1994, Texas A&M computer wizards set up a camera that posted onto the Internet a new picture of the bonfire every 10 minutes. University graduates responded in e-mail from throughout the world, especially when officials ordered the unfinished bonfire torn down because of unstable soil.

"What happened to my poor bonfire? What are the plans to fix my baby?" an alum wrote from afar in an electronic message to the university's computer department. "If it gets any worse are they gonna (cancel) classes like they did in '58 so we can fix it?"

But graduates of the late 1950s would have no legitimate claim to superior enthusiasm about the Thanksgiving-time rite.

In 1935, a farmer complained that his log barn had been carried off "lock, stock and barrel" by students who used it as fuel for the fire. The school's Corps of Cadets had to raise money to pay him back, according to university archives.

In the 1970s, when the tradition was listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest bonfire on the planet, a College Station police officer was dismissed when, acting on a dare, he tried to ignite the wood stack days ahead of schedule. He was spotted by students, who chased him across campus.

Before the officer was captured, he tried to hide in a rental home inhabited by several young women. According to police accounts, he flashed his badge at one of the women and said: "I'm not going to hurt you. They're after me."

In 1983, the College Station municipal sign department manufactured an Austin city limits sign to be placed atop the bonfire and burned in an expression of disdain for the University of Texas, whose football rivalry with A&M is the basis of bonfire lore. The city went to such lengths because Aggie students were getting in trouble for pilfering the real signs from Austin.

And on Thursday, Charles Hill of Crockett, whose three sons are all corps members who worked on the bonfire, said he believes the tradition should continue despite the deaths.

"You can't run from life," Hill said. "Our boys love the bonfire; they love A&M. I'd love to know when the next scary thing is going to happen to them, but you never know."

His son Caleb, 19, a sophomore who was injured when the stack of logs collapsed, agreed.

"No amount of oversight, no amount of anything could have prevented this," Caleb Hill said. "I believe the bonfire is a strong tradition uniting young and old."

All this over what began as the burning of a pile of trash and debris in 1909.

At least, that is the year codified into tradition as the first Aggie Bonfire, part of the practice of building outdoor fires on campus to generate enthusiasm for a variety of sports events.

But it wasn't until 1919 that the A&M and UT football teams started playing each other on a schedule of once a year around Thanksgiving, and it wasn't until the following year that the bonfire was used as a rev-up against UT specifically.

This is according to A Centennial History of Texas A&M University 1876-1976, a book written by Henry C. Dethloff and published by the A&M Press.

The bonfire wasn't recognized as an official, "legal" campus event until 1936, when the college supplied axes, saws and trucks for students to reap dead cottonwoods from a grove on the edge of town, according to the book.

The bonfire "did not come of age" until 1941, when fresh-cut logs became the main ingredient, according to a 1977 Houston Chronicle retrospective.

In 1946, the bonfire builders started using logs to construct a center pole that provided structure for the bonfire. It was no longer just a pile.

The 1947-48 freshman handbook, Cadence, described how Aggie cadets guarded the wood stack around the clock to stop potential UT marauders from damaging the bonfire.

"The bonfire symbolizes two things: a burning desire to beat the team from the University of Texas and an undying flame of love that every loyal Aggie carries in his heart for the school," Cadence stated.

The first death associated with bonfire construction struck in 1955, when a student involved in the effort was hit by a swerving car. A student was killed in 1981 when he was crushed by a tractor hauling wood. Among the thousands of students involved in the construction every year, a few have lost fingers or sustained minor injuries. In 1982, a student was hurt when an outhouse -- an annual bonfire topper, painted UT orange -- fell from the burning mass.

Students get instruction in wood-cutting and bonfire-building before they dive into the project.

Even the turbulent 1960s echoed in the bonfire's crackle. In 1963, the bonfire was canceled for the first time because of the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas a few days before Thanksgiving.

The bonfire reached record heights in the late 1960s. In 1967, the Aggie football team, practicing 25 miles away in Caldwell, said it could see bonfire flames on the horizon. The bonfire reached nearly 111 feet in 1969 but has been reduced by half because of fears that the flames could spread to other campus buildings, which have been equipped with rooftop sprinkler systems.

For decades, the lighting of the bonfire has drawn 40,000 or more witnesses to an intricate set of rituals such as speeches, cheers, yells and carrying of torches -- an extravaganza that mixes ancient instincts, such as war whooping and fire-starting, with Aggie pride and a Texas sense of community.

But it has also served as a magnet for collegiate drinking and carousing -- and, therefore, recent controversy.

In 1987, women students at the formerly all-male school complained that they were being excluded from construction activities.

St. Thomas Episcopal Church, across the street from the former bonfire site near Kyle Field, certainly saw the bonfire's downside in 1989. Its leader, the Rev. Steven Sellers, said drunken revelers had broken church windows, urinated on the exterior and passed out on the premises.

"It's just gotten out of hand," he told the Chronicle then. "It takes three months to do the bonfire. Many students are taking lower grade-point averages or dropping classes for it."

Police at the bonfire issued 140 citations that year for alcohol possession by a minor and arrested six people.

In 1994, taped music played during bonfire construction contained an epithet against African-Americans. A leader of the bonfire construction team apologized in a letter to the student newspaper, saying the music had been "submitted" by "an unidentified individual."

The event has even spawned an environmental controversy, with a handful of activists questioning the destruction of hundreds of trees. A&M officials have responded that much of the fuel comes from "trash trees" that cannot normally be used for construction or landscaping.

But nothing has marred the Aggie Bonfire like Thursday's deadly accident, which led university officials to cancel the event for only the second time in history.

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