Updated:
Original:
Year
1999
Month Day
November 18

12 die in bonfire at Texas A&M University

For nearly a century, students at Texas A&M University 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. Overall, twelve people were killed, and 27 were injured.

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.

FACT CHECK: We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, click here to contact us!

ALSO ON THIS DAY

Mass suicide at Jonestown

On this day in 1978, Peoples Temple founder Jim Jones leads hundreds of his followers in a mass murder-suicide at their agricultural commune in a remote part of the South American nation of Guyana. Many of Jones’ followers willingly ingested a poison-laced punch while others were ...read more

Terry Waite released

Shiite Muslim kidnappers in Lebanon free Anglican Church envoy Terry Waite after more than four years of captivity. Waite, looking thinner and his hair grayer, was freed along with American educator Thomas M. Sutherland after intense negotiations by the United Nations. Waite, ...read more

Sandy Koufax retires

On November 18, 1966, Sandy Koufax, the ace pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, retires from baseball. He was just 30 years old, and he was retiring after a great season–he’d led the Dodgers to a National League pennant and won his third Cy Young award. But he had chronic ...read more

Lincoln travels to Gettysburg

On this day in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln boards a train for Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to deliver a short speech at the dedicationof a cemetery of soldiers killed during the battle there on July 1 to July 3, 1863. The address Lincoln gave in Gettysburg became one of the most ...read more

Battle of the Somme ends

On this day in 1916, British Commander in Chief Sir Douglas Haig calls a halt to his army’s offensive near the Somme River in northwestern France, ending the epic Battle of the Somme after more than four months of bloody conflict. With the French under heavy siege at Verdun since ...read more