I have said relatively little to anybody about my experience in the Bonfire collapse of 1999. It’s a sore topic, and there is little comprehension by most people, even Aggies who have graduated since 2003, of just how big bonfire was both in size and importance to the Aggie Spirit. In many ways I’m glad that the topic rarely comes up. However, bonfire and the collapse of bonfire both impacted my life substantially, and therefore I think its important to write something down about it.
Bonfire was an amazing tradition in which thousands of students donated countless hours, along with blood, sweat, and tears, to build a massive bonfire, requiring ~7,000 trees cut down by students with axes, and stacked into a 60 ft wedding cake structure. To most Aggies, bonfire represented our burning desire to beat the hell out of Texas University (t.u.). But to those of us who built bonfire, the burning of bonfire was just the bitter-sweet ending of a 2 month process of making friends, having fun, and upholding a 90 year Aggie tradition.
However, on Nov 18th, 1999, bonfire collapsed while students were stacking logs onto bonfire, my dorm was one of the crews working that night. I was working first stack swing (about 20 ft up) on the south side of bonfire, the direction that it fell. Typically I was a hard worker when it came to bonfire, taking few breaks and working full shifts. But bonfire is primarily built by freshmen. On this particular night, and no other time that I can recall, I decided I was working too hard for a junior. It was time to get out of my swing and enjoy some hot chocolate with friends around one of the perimeter poles. Literally moments after I got down off the stack of 5000 logs, Bonfire collapsed killing 12 and injuring 27. I saw the entire thing happen from close distance. I had not yet joined my friends or made it to the refreshments. I ran back to where I was, looking for people from my crew. I was immediately met by a hysterical female friend. I moved her to the perimeter and went further in. I’m not sure what I expected to do or see, I thought I was going to help someone. But very quickly my eyes saw a couple of bodies that were contorted in unnatural ways. Immediately my eyes averted. I tried to move in, intending to pray with them, if they were still alive, wanting to let them know that Jesus loved them. But I couldn’t move. I could move parallel to the stack just fine, but I couldn’t move towards the stack. I made myself look back and I saw a person stuck in the stack between two large logs. He was alive, go to him, help him, I thought to myself. But I couldn’t move. I decided that if I can’t help these people I should at least get back to my friends. Let them know I’m okay, and see if I can do anything. I found a huddle of strangers praying, awesome, I was glad to pray with them. I was extremely proud of our crew chiefs. Just sophomores, but they followed the instructions handed down by the senior redpots and organized people, called in for help, assigned jobs, figured out who is missing, and eventually identified the dead. Wow, they have my respect and I pray that this experience didn’t scar them for life.
Two ways that I responded to this experience that I didn’t expect: 1) I made bad jokes, distasteful jokes even, and I’m never the joker. I guess I wanted to lighten the mood or distract myself. The sound of my laugh was hollow and unanswered. I wasn’t happy with the way I responded. 2) I developed a twitch in one lower eye-lid. For a couple of weeks, all the way through Thanksgiving, my eye twitched every few seconds. I was glad when it faded away, it was no longer a reminder.
The thing that I came away with, the thing that I can’t escape is that God saved me for a purpose. Some might call it survivor’s guilt, but I have no guilt about surviving. I’m glad I survived obviously, but after this happened I felt very strongly that it was God (or my guardian angel) that called me down out of that swing. I don’t think I’ve ever left a swing during a shift before, it wasn’t like me. And yet, God considered me so important that he allowed me to walk away from this incident without a scratch. Considering 39 of the 58 people working on the stack were either killed or injured, I’d say I was pretty lucky. Can I ever do enough to repay God? No, of course not. That’s the definition of grace vs. works. I just happen to have had it played out in my physical life as well as my spiritual life. But I can’t completely get past the question: am I doing enough to justify the life he’s given me? Should I be doing more? Has God saved me for an even greater purpose? 14 years later, God has given me a great deal of peace on this topic by revealing to me one thing: God doesn’t save us to put us in servitude. God saves us to put us in right relationship with him. He desires no less and expects no more from any of his children, regardless of what circumstances he’s saved them from. John 8:36: “So if the Son sets you free, you are truly free.” Thank you God for setting me free.
My prayers for the individuals and families who were permanently affected by this tragedy. I hope that you know the love God has for you, and that any lingering grief would be replaced by supernatural joy and fond memories.