Construction begins on a giant bonfire at Texas A&M University on this day in 1999, the continuation of a tradition that began 90 years earlier. Two days later, the bonfire collapsed, killing 12 students and injuring another 27.
For nearly a century, students in College Station, Texas, created a massive bonfire—self-proclaimed to be “the world’s largest”—prior to their school’s annual football game against their archrival, the University of Texas. The beloved pre-game tradition had been canceled only once, in 1963 following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Over the years, the bonfire grew so big that its construction became an elaborate project requiring days of work by teams of student volunteers. On two previous occasions, the bonfire had partially collapsed; neither episode had been disastrous.
The 1999 bonfire was supposed to require more than 7,000 logs and the labor of up to 70 workers at a time. Just after dawn on November 18, students were working near the top of the 59-foot-high pile (4 feet higher than authorized) when, in the words of Jenny Callaway, a student who was on the stack, “It just snapped.” Without warning, scores of students became caught in the huge log pile. Other students, including Caleb Hill who suffered only broken bones in his 50-foot fall, were lucky enough to fall away from the pile.
“People were running around calling people’s names and crying,” sophomore Michael Guerra said. “Other people were just like zombies. They couldn’t believe what had happened.” Cranes were immediately brought in to remove the logs and free the students but the process was painstaking, as any wrong movement could cause further collapse. The last survivor was pulled from the pile about six hours later.
The bonfire was cancelled for only the second time ever and an investigation began into the causes of the collapse. It was later determined that the first stack of logs did not have sufficient containment strength. The wiring used to tie the logs together was not strong enough for the job; the steel cables employed in prior years had not been used. The construction effort in general was also blamed, for creating “a complex and dangerous structure without adequate physical or engineering control.
Texas A&M’s official bonfires were suspended indefinitely following this tragedy but unofficial bonfires have been built since 2002.