Ten years ago this morning, I got two calls before 6:00 am. I don’t remember my exact schedule, but I do know I probably didn’t have to be on campus before 9:00, so people didn’t usually call me at this time. I ignored the first call. I found out, later, in an unexpected way that it was my mom. But, the first call woke me up, so when the second call came, I answered it. It was my friend Eric. Bonfire collapsed, he said. “So what,” I answered, somewhat perturbed to have been woken up (I’m guessing I had rehearsal the night before). Bonfire had fallen in 1994. I knew. I grew up in College Station. They rebuilt it. What was the big deal?
Bonfire ’94 had fallen weeks before burn. When Bonfire ’94 fell, it was raining. The ground shifted and it fell. Bonfire ’99 fell during push. Bonfire ’99 fell at 2:42 in the morning. Bonfire ’99 fell with at least 60 people on site. Bonfire ’99 killed 12 students and injured 27 more. That, Kelly, was the big deal.
Just after 6:00, my mother knocked on my apartment door, just this side of panicked because I didn’t answer the phone and she knew what I didn’t. I say just this side of panicked because she stopped for donuts. Yes, my family has an unhealthy relationship with food.
We watched the news (hey, we made the national news!) and ate our donuts until it was time to go to work and class. I don’t remember much about that day. I do remember walking to my Beginning Drawing class (which I fucking hated, and doesn’t that seem unimportant now) and hearing helicopters. At least two news helicopters (Mom says it was four), their noise echoing so loudly between the buildings that I thought the sound was inside me as I walked to the architecture building. It's amazing how many people recall that detail, the campus was silent, save for the noise of the helicopters infecting everything. We all hoped our prof would take pity on us and dismiss class. But no, we drew still life of one form or another, no one really there, everyone a few hundred yards away on the polo field.
We went to the polo field, stood silent vigil, walked, prayed, dealt. We had a tough week. Elephant Walk, I recall, was particularly miserable. We beat t.u. We started to heal.
Today is the 10th anniversary of Bonfire ’99. Today would have been Bonfire’s centennial. What an amazing celebration that would have been.
I have amazing memories of eight Bonfires, which is double what most students got to experience. Being a townie isn’t all bad. Bonfire ’98 was one of the most amazing nights of my life. Had I known then, I wouldn’t have done anything differently, but I would commit so much more to memory.
I don’t think Bonfire will ever return to campus. You have to weigh the cost. The price of 12 brothers and sisters is much too high. We are a community steeped in tradition. In discussing the Bonfire of ’63, the only other Bonfire not to burn (in honor of JFK), a Yell Leader said, “it was the most we had, and the least we could give.” I feel the same way about Bonfire now. We honor the dead with the most we have and the least we can give. They gave much more.
Monday, I was able to read all the way through this month’s Texas Monthly article, which took over 100 hours of interviews and gave a timeline of those events, from first cut to the victory over Texas. It was the first time I have ever been able to read anything about Bonfire ’99. Please don’t mistake this statement for hyperbole. I have never been able to stomach the thought of what happened. I have a stack of magazines and newspaper articles from ’99 that are sitting in my cedar chest, waiting to be read. I’ve never opened one of them.
It hurts. It hurts like today is November 19, 1999. If it hurts me this much, I know there are tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of Aggies out there who hurt just as much as I do, and some so much more. Those that lost a best friend. A son. A sister. A buddy.
I attended both the Bonfire Memorial and the 2:42 service last night. It was hard. It was moving. But it was strange to stand there with a crowd of people who had never seen a Bonfire (a real Bonfire). These kids were in Elementary when this happened. But, the Spirit is still there. It’s not the same. But, I suppose it never is, is it?
Miranda, Chris B., Michael, Jeremy, Jamie, Chris H., Tim, Lucas, Bryan, Chad, Jerry, Nathan
We remember. As long as there are Aggies, you will never be forgotten.
It's the Spirit of Aggieland.