Since 1907, lighting a huge bonfire has been a long-standing tradition at Texas A&M University. Students annually prepare for the bonfire months in advance by gathering wood and timber. This tradition symbolizes the love all Aggies have for Texas A&M and their “burning desire” to defeat the University of Texas at football. The bonfire’s tradition was altered after the bonfire stack collapsed on November 18, 1999 at 2:42 am. The collapse killed 12 students and injured 27 others. This loss greatly impacted past, current, and future Aggies. Within five years, a large and symbolic memorial was built to commemorate the lives of those Aggies that were taken and injured.
bonfire is one of the most respected and well-known traditions of Texas A&M
University. It started in 1907 as an unimpressive pile of wood and scraps but
evolved into one of the largest organized bonfires in the world. This
impressive feat was accomplished by months of preparation, teamwork,
organization, and commitment. Students would go out and cut wood every weekend,
typically starting in September, to prepare for the bonfire to be lit on
November 18th. There are certain leadership positions and vernacular
used to effectively achieve the goal, while still taking safety precautions.
All participants must wear protective head gear, and leaders are indicated by
the color pot they wear.1 Students
wearing red pots are in charge of maintaining a safe environment and organizing
the project as a whole. Students wearing brown pots are in charge of using
heavy equipment such as chainsaws. There were traditionally 9 seniors and 9
juniors with red pots, but since the bonfire stack has grown each year, the
need for more leaders has increased the numbers of students with red and brown
bonfire was lit each year since 1907, and in 1935 the lighting of the bonfire
became a university sponsored event. Starting in 1936, the students were
provided with the necessary tools and transportation by the university, and
were even assisted in locating dead trees to cut down.2 This
symbolized the university officially adopting Aggie Bonfire as a cherished
tradition. The way the bonfire was stacked eventually became standardized
instead of improvised. A stacking technique that resembled a Native American
tipi was established.3 This
design allowed the bonfire stack to grow in height. The bonfire stack was
originally just a few feet in height, never exceeding more than 15 feet, but
the new design allowed the stack to grow upwards to almost 100 feet. However,
the stack was soon limited to around 50 feet in height as a safety precaution.
height limit was a wise decision considering the tragedy that occurred during
the stacking of the bonfire in 1999. On November 18th, students were
constructing the bonfire by stacking the logs to form the tipi shape. At 2:42
am the bonfire stack collapsed during construction, killing 12 students, and
injuring 27 others. Over 24 hours were spent trying to pry the students out
from underneath the heavy logs.
night a memorial was held in Reed Arena and thousands of Aggies gathered to
honor their brothers and sisters that had past.4 As an
Aggie, each student feels a deep connection with one another, even if they have
not met, a characteristic that makes Texas A&M different from other
universities. Due to this deep connection among the student body, past,
present, and future Aggies are still haunted by this tragedy. As a result, the
University decided that it could no longer sponsor the Bonfire tradition, but
it is still lit each year off campus and without the university’s aid.
Doran Kerlee Jr, the last student to die, was a freshman in the Corps of Cadets
(Squadron 16). He urged the first responders to help save the other students
first because he claimed his injuries weren’t life threatening. He told the
rescue workers to, “Help my buddies first.”
Timothy had substantial injuries, his internal organs were punctured,
and he had multiple broken bones. He would only live for a couple more hours
once he was removed from the rubble. He died in the hospital on November 19th.
He was the 12th man to die, and he died honoring the principles that Aggies
live by; excellence, integrity, leadership, loyalty, respect, and especially
five years of the tragedy, a symbolic memorial was built at the location of
where the bonfire stack collapsed. The Bonfire Memorial is located near the
intersection of Texas Avenue and New Main Drive on the Texas A&M campus. The
Bonfire Memorial has multiple parts. There is an inscription at the entrance
that reads, “There’s a spirit can ne’er be told,” which symbolizes that the
Aggie spirit is strong and especially powerful at this location. On the walkway
leading up to the Spirit Ring, there is a long granite strip with a space
carved out for a light. Each light symbolizes every year that the bonfire was
lit from 1907 until 1999, the only exception was in 1963 the bonfire was not
lit in order to honor President John F. Kennedy who had just been assassinated.
The Bonfire Memorial is centered around the Spirit Ring.
Spirit Ring has 12 portals, one for each student who passed. In between the
portals are 27 blank bronze plaques, that symbolize the Aggies who were injured
during the collapse. Those who were injured insisted on leaving the bronze plaques
blank because they considered their sacrifice insignificant compared to the
Aggies whose lives were lost. The portals are 12 feet tall, symbolic to the
Aggie tradition of being a 12th Man. Each portal is dedicated to a
specific person, and points in the direction of their home town. Stepping
inside the portal is symbolic to stepping inside the spirit of that person’s
life. Each portal has a portrait of the person whose life was taken, and
features quotes directly from the deceased student, or quotes from their
family. The portals are meant to serve as a celebration of their lives, rather
than a mourning of their death.
year on November 18th, at 2:42 am, thousands of students gather at
the Bonfire Memorial to commemorate the lives of those Aggies that were taken
on that tragic night. A few speeches are made and it is overall a solemn time
dedicated to mourning the loss of fellow Aggies. The families of the deceased
students still come to the ceremony, even though their sons and daughters were
lost almost 20 years ago. The impact this tragic event had on the Texas A&M
campus and student body is still evident 19 years later.