Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Aggies Remember Their Fallen

Even though I never attended a day of class there, I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for Texas A&M. It's my sister's alma mater, for one thing, and it became my "school away from school" while she was there; I got to attend more than a few football games (including a couple of Cotton Bowls), and I was always sort of a secret honorary member of whichever class she was in (at a school where being a freshman, sophomore, etc. actually means something).

A&M is a special place with a lot of traditions, many of which stem from the university's military origins. And for nine decades, one of the most revered of those traditions was the event simply known as Bonfire. Symbolizing the Aggies' burning desire to beat the University of Texas (known as Texas University or "t.u." in College Station) every Thanksgiving, the tower of logs took months to collect, around a week to build, and stood nearly 60 feet tall.

But ten years ago today, the unthinkable happened: In the early hours of the morning, the stack collapsed well before it was meant to be lit, with students atop the structure; twelve Aggies lost their lives that morning. Inadequate supervision and student's cutting corners were said to be the cause, according to a commission that investigated the disaster; no blame was assigned to any specific group or individual.

In the years since then, a memorial was constructed at the site, and the bonfire hasn't been held on campus since, though one has existed as a tradition in exile since 2002. And this morning, Aggies gathered to remember the fallen:
More than 3,000 people cupping candles that flickered in the cold morning air gathered at the collapse site on campus at 2:42 a.m. – the exact time of the Nov. 18, 1999 accident that also injured 27 people.

Current and former students, victims' families and others filled the grassy hills where a concrete and metal circular memorial now stands. The 30-minute event was somber but also musical as long stretches of silence were mixed with the crowd singing "Amazing Grace" and school songs such as "The Spirit of Aggieland.
I'll leave the debate as to whether the bonfire should ever return to campus--in a much more supervised state, of course--to Aggies themselves (including Gov. Rick Perry, who's gone on record as supporting such a thing). But today, I join them in pausing to remember the students who gave their lives in support of school spirit; may you never be forgotten.

(A moving video tribute to the fallen, along with other Bonfire memories, may be found here.

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