It was the most exciting time of year on Texas A&M's campus. It was getting cold and Thanksgiving was approaching, which meant two things: Bonfire and the football game against Texas, our biggest rival. I was a sophomore that year. It would be my first time as a student to attend the all-important important game, as it had been in Austin the previous year. I'd attended Bonfire twice before. It may have been more, but I can't remember now. My best friend and I went our senior year in high school and of course I went my freshman year.
Students had been working on stack for weeks and it was almost finished. It was always neat to drive by on Texas Avenue or University Drive and see the progress. Bonfire looked like a huge wedding cake made out of logs rising out of a big, green field. On the night it would burn, thousands of students and Aggie fans would gather around it and sing our songs, do our yells, and tell our "good bull." The feeling of being a part of a huge family, the feeling of pride in this very unique and wonderful school - simply put, it was fun. For Aggies, this was the highlight of the year.
At 5:00 in the morning on November 18, 1999, my phone rang. It was my friend and accountability partner, Becky, calling to ask if I was going out to pray on the steps of the Administration Building. Say what? I had no clue what she was talking about. There were a lot of strong believers on our campus and it wasn't that unusual to think of people gathering to pray, but I was not so spiritual that I would involve myself in such an early gathering. Finally she realized I was clueless and she explained that Bonfire had collapsed on top of our classmates and there were many dead or injured. People were meeting to pray.
When you're growing up, those moments that involve death change you. And I was changed in that moment, along with my forty-something thousand classmates. We were thrust forward in the necessary process of becoming adults. This process, I have come to realize, often involves pain.
Becky arrived at our townhouse a few minutes later in her Ford Explorer, if I'm remembering right. She caught me up on what she knew and we headed to campus. It was pitch black outside. We parked by the Commons and walked over to the beautiful, white Administration Building that looks out on the Polo Field where Bonfire had been built.
I may never forget the chills that ran over my body when I saw the flashing red lights of all the emergency vehicles lighting up the night. The lights symbolized help, but the scene looked evil. Deadly. Horrifying.
We prayed with the other students gathered. We asked God to save our classmates who were trapped in the twisted mass of logs. We asked Him to comfort us. We asked Him to show Himself on our campus.
Then we moved down closer to the fallen stack. The day was breaking and we could see white blankets covering certain parts of the stack. It was sickening. It was quiet. There were big, burly guys trying to help. Others were kneeling and hugging each other. There were a lot of tears. There were mouths opened, covered by hands. There was shock and brokenness.
By the time every last log had been unraveled, twelve students (including one former student) were dead. The irony was not lost on a school that prides itself in the tradition of The Twelfth Man.
We knew our school would never be the same. It wasn't and still isn't. There was talk that Bonfire would never be built or burn again. It was hard to imagine A&M without its most prized tradition. But I think everyone knew deep down that even if students built it again and were very careful, eventually a new generation of Ags who weren't there to see the horror that we had seen would lose sight of why more care needed to be taken. And then the old ways would return and it could happen again. That would be inexcusable.
There's an off-campus, unsponsored Bonfire now. I've never been to it. So far, it's not the attraction that the original Bonfire once was. I don't really know what I think about it, but I hope they're taking care. I suppose there are many good causes worth giving one's life for, but Bonfire - as fun as it was - is not one of them.
My class, the Class of 2002, was the last freshman class to see a Bonfire burn. We saw some turbulent times on that campus, beginning with the Bonfire Tragedy and ending with 9/11 in the fall of our senior year. If those won't grow you up quick, I don't know what will.
On this tenth anniversary of Bonfire's collapse, my prayer is that current Texas A&M students will stop and consider how fleeting this life is. I pray they will look up from the near-sighted, self-involved season that can characterize the college years and consider that no person, no institution is invincible or self-sufficient. We are weak and humble despite our pride and boasting. The troubles of this life will bring us to our knees, but God will meet us there if we let Him. He is definitely worthy of the laying down of our lives.
Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you. (Romans 12:1-3)
*What about you? Was there a major event that marked your college years?
**Donna at Way More Homemade wrote a great post describing what Bonfire used to be like.