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Texas A&M Bonfire Tragedy: The tradition, the tragedy and the aftermath

1999: In College Station, Texas, 12 are killed and 27 injured at Texas A&M University when the 59-foot-tall Aggie Bonfire, under construction for the annual football game against the University of Texas, collapses in the early morning hours. The accident led Texas A&M to declare a discontinuance of the official bonfire, which had been a tradition for 90 years. However, a non-university sanctioned student bonfire has taken its place since 2002. (U.S. Department of Homeland Security)

HOUSTON – On Monday, the Texas A&M community will come together in remembrance of the tragic 1999 bonfire collapse that left 12 Aggies dead and 27 injured. 

Tradition

The massive bonfire was a tradition at the university that started as a scrap heap in 1907 and became bigger each year, eventually growing into a flaming structure of vertical logs. It represented "every Aggie's 'burning desire' to beat the University of Texas in football," according to the TAMU website. It would attract between 30,000 and 70,000 people, school officials say. 

The bonfire burned each year except for the year President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963. That year, the bonfire was built and then torn down as a tribute to the fallen president.

Throughout the bonfire's nearly 100-year tradition, it was always built by students. 

Tragedy 

At 2:42 a.m. on Nov. 18, 1999, the towering student-built bonfire collapsed, tragically killing a dozen students and injuring more than two dozen others. There were reportedly dozens of students on the structure when it fell. 

A Texas A&M commission after the tragedy reportedly found that the 59-foot bonfire collapsed because of poor construction and design practices made possible by a chronic lack of supervision from the university. 

Mourning

On Nov. 25, 1999, the day the bonfire would have been lit, at least 40,000 people reportedly mourned the victims behind the police tape at the site of the collapse. Among the mourners were President George H.W. Bush and then Texas Gov. George W. Bush. 

The next day, the Aggies beat the Longhorns 20-16 in their annual rivalry game. The game began with a flyover by F-16s, all piloted by former Texas A&M students. UT's band played tributes to the fallen Aggies during halftime. 

Controversy

Soon after the tragedy, the Bryan-College Station Eagle reported that The Arizona Republic, a Phoenix-based newspaper, published an editorial cartoon comparing the collapse with the 1993 Waco Seige and the 1998 racially-motivated slaying of James Byrd Jr. After widespread protests, the paper reportedly offered the school $10,000 which then Texas A&M President Ray Bowen refused to accept. 

Lawsuits

Lawsuits were filed by family members of the victims against the university after the fire claiming the university violated the victims' 14th amendment right of due process by placing them in a "state-created danger.". In 2004, a federal judge dismissed the lawsuits saying Texas A&M was not liable for the disaster. Three years later, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld the ruling

Memorial

Meanwhile, the university constructed a memorial for the victims that was unveiled five years after the tragedy. You can learn more about the memorial here.