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Nine students confirmed dead; workers continue to search pile

Nov. 19, 1999

By CLINTON COX

Staff Writer

A Texas A&M University tradition will never be quite the same after several students were killed and many more injured when the university's bonfire collapsed early Thursday morning on the campus in College Station.

Nine people were confirmed dead and 28 injured after the accident as of press time, which marked the first time in the bonfire's 90-year history that an accident at the sight resulted in casualties. The structure fell in 1994, but no one was killed or severely injured that time.

Texas A&M students Bryan McClain, Jerry Self, Jeremy Frampton, Christopher Breen, Chad Powell, Nathan West, Jamie Hand, Luca Kimmel and Christopher Heard lost their lives in the accident

The bonfire, part of the annual homecoming festivities associated with the Aggies' football game against the University of Texas, normally stands 55 feet tall. However, when the bonfire collapsed at approximately 2:28 a.m., it stood at about 40 feet, with its construction nearing completion.

Over 100 law enforcement officers worked on the scene Thursday. According to Texas A&M university relations, specialized sound equipment and motion detectors were used during the search for the victims.

Tura King, communication specialist with Texas A&M, said several people are still believed to be inside the wooden structure. Emergency rescue crews arrived at the sight of the accident at 2:42 a.m. Thursday and began searching for victims who might be trapped in the rubble.

'The idea now is to take [the bonfire] apart and figure out how it happened,' King said.

She said it is believed that the center pole, which the bonfire is built around, broke apart, causing the rest of the structure to fall inward.

The center pole consists of two telephone poles spliced together to form one 65-foot-tall form. The bottom 10 feet are buried in the ground. There are 6,000 to 8,000 logs used to make up the structure.

According to Jonathan Karaatz of Texas A&M university relations, the construction of the bonfire is an organized process with several crew chiefs, each overseeing no more than eight workers.

'The crew chiefs must go through safety training courses; however, any Texas A&M student wishing to participate in the construction may, as long as they wear a safety hat,' Karaatz said. 'The other students have to listen to the crew chiefs. They can't even bend down to pick up a stick without permission.'

King echoed that comment.

'The work site is monitored very closely,' she said

The supervisors are called 'red pots,' because of the red hats that they must wear on the site. Most of the students working at the site are juniors and seniors.

The process usually begins in early October.

Building the bonfire is a long-time tradition that all students have the opportunity to participate in, and a safe one according to at least one Texas A&M student.

'We've been doing this [building the bonfire] for 90 years, and this is the first time someone has been killed, so it has to be a relatively safe process,' Tracy Allen, a Texas A&M student said.

Allen said one problem associated with finding survivors is the fact that there is no way to keep up with just exactly who is working on the site.

'They let anyone with a [hard hat] in,' Allen said.

King said that the university is conducing a campus-wide dorm search to try and account for everyone.

'We're also encouraging all the students to call home to their parents,' she said.

Allen said she is friends with many students who lived in Hughes Dormitory on the Texas A&M campus. Many students who lived in Hughes were working at the bonfire when it collapsed. According to Allen, students from the different dorms on campus work rotating shifts at the bonfire in the final days before it's completed.

'The last week before the bonfire is lighted is called push. Students from the different dorms work 12-6, and then 6-12,' Allen said.

'There were about 20 to 30 students on the platform when it fell.'

There were about 70 people all together at the site.

She said that students are lifted to the top of the bonfire with harnesses as it builds up.

Luckily, Allen said, she did not know any of the students who were killed in the accident. She was one of many students who went to the sight after they learned of the accident on television.

'We went there around 3 in the morning once we heard about it. There were lots of other kids there too,' Allen said.

The bonfire, which is located on the northeast edge of the campus, is usually attended by 50,000-70,000 people, according to Karaatz.

Texas A&M President Ray Bowen has said that there will not be a bonfire this year.

He said it's too early to say whether the university will continue to have the bonfire, but that university officials will definitely consider the possibility.

'It's hard to say what's going to happen. But after the cause of the accident is determined, the president will sit down with students and faculty and others and decide what steps need to be taken in the future,' Karaatz said.

The University of Texas-Austin has announced that it will transform what is normally a pep rally before the game into a candle light vigil. The school also flew its flags at half-staff Thursday in honor of the injured and killed students.

Texas A&M held a memorial service at 7 Thursday at Reed Arena. Former President George Bush, Lieutenant Governor Rick Perry and Texas A&M Student Body President Will Hurd spoke at the service that was reportedly filled to the arena's capacity of 12,000.

Baylor University Student Body External Vice President Sandy Carruth and a few other members of student government made the trip to College Station to attend Thursday night's ceremony.

According to Carruth, the ceremony focused on the importance of 'keeping the Aggie spirit,' and the importance of not trying to understand why the tragedy occurred, but remembering those who were lost.