Documentary's release marks 20th anniversary of Texas A&M bonfire tragedy

Twenty years later, the Texas A&M bonfire tragedy is remembered in documentary premiering this week.
Twenty years later, the Texas A&M bonfire tragedy is remembered in documentary premiering this week.

HOUSTON – A documentary commemorating the 20th anniversary of the bonfire collapse at Texas A&M University will premiere in Houston Friday.

"The 13th Man" chronicles the story of John Comstock, one of 27 survivors of the collapse, which killed 12 students.  Comstock’s left leg was amputated after he fell during the collapse on Nov. 18, 1999.

“I was out there because I loved building it,” Comstock said, describing why he took part in the Aggie tradition, which lasted 90 years and marked a rite of passage among students. The bonfire coincided with the annual Thanksgiving week football rivalry of Texas A&M versus UT.

“Because it was such hard work, I think everybody that was out there was doing it because they loved it,” Comstock said.

Construction -- a stack of logs towering into the sky -- was completely student-run. Ill-positioned logs, and irregular weight distribution were two of the reasons why the stack collapsed. Comstock, then a 19-year-old freshman from the Dallas area, said he was atop the stack when he felt it move.

“I couldn’t jump or get away from it, so at that point, I just had to grab on to the logs in front of me,” Comstock said, describing the horror. 

“It swayed just a little but there was no warning before that. I mean it just swayed a little bit and the whole structure just started to fall over,” he continued.

Comstock said he was stuck in a pile of logs for over seven hours.

“I couldn’t feel my legs, so I wasn’t sure if I was paralyzed … and was just really kinda hoping they would get me out of there,” he said.

Comstock spent months in the hospital. His condition worsened and for a time doctors feared the worst.

“They were pumping me full of antibiotics and I started to take a turn downhill and that’s when they decided the bone in my left leg was rotting from the inside out and so they had to make the decision to amputate.”

Comstock eventually pulled through and returned to A&M.  He’s married, a father, and now works for the university and considers bonfire a forever part of the school’s legacy.

Bonfire ended on Texas A&M’s campus following the collapse, although students eventually brought back the tradition with an unofficial bonfire taking place off-campus.

“I would love to see it come back, but I just think that’s an impossibility on campus, but I’m glad they do still continue the tradition off campus,” Comstock said.

Charlie Minn, the film’s director, said the project stresses the importance of not forgetting the tragedy.

“We had 39 victims. Their families are victims. Their friends are victims. A&M, the community – all are affected by this tragedy,” Minn said.

Minn also spoke of Comstock’s resilience over the years.

“John is a living miracle.  He should be an example to all of us.  He should motivate and inspire us – make us look at our problems and see if they really is a problem.”

Where you can watch it Friday

Westwood Cinema – Brenham 
2100 US-290, Brenham, TX 77833

The Grand – Conroe 
4029 Interstate 45 N, Conroe, TX 77304

Premiere Cinemas – Houston (Greenspoint Mall)
12300 North Fwy #400, Houston, TX 77060

Cinestar – Conroe 
2000 Interstate 45 N, Conroe, TX 77301

Showbiz Cinemas – Kingwood
350 Northpark Dr, Kingwood, TX 77339

Studio Movie Grill – Pearland
8440 S Sam Houston Pkwy E, Houston, TX 77075

Premiere Cinemas – Webster 
20833 Gulf Fwy, Webster, TX 77598

About the Author:

Emmy and Edward R. Murrow award-winning journalist. NOLA born and bred, though #HoustonStrong, with stops in Minnesota, New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut in along the way.