COLLEGE STATION, Texas – On this day 20 years ago, tragedy struck Texas A&M campus.
On Nov. 18, 1999, more than three dozen members of A&M’s Corps of Cadets were building the stack of timber that would be set on fire as part of the lead-up to the annual rivalry football game with the University of Texas. It was a tradition that started 90 years earlier, and to build the bonfire meant you were all in -- an Aggie, true and through.
The night that changed A&M history
At 2:42 a.m., something went wrong during the bonfire build. John Comstock, who was a freshman at the time, was helping build the stack.
He recalled the night the bonfire collapsed.
“It just swayed a little bit and the whole structure just started to fall over,” he said.
In all, 12 were killed and dozens more were injured.
The bonfire’s 12th victim to die was Tim Kerlee Jr. At just 17 year old, he was a “fish”—a first year in A&M’s Corps of Cadets. His mother, Janice Kerlee, said he loved A&M.
“You know, the muster and silver taps and saying ‘howdy' -- things like this,” she said.
Janice remembered the call that changed her family’s life forever.
“It’s one of those phone calls in the middle of the night, and you dread those, because it’s usually bad news,” she said.
Tim, though still alive after the bonfire collapse, had sustained multiple injuries by the time he was freed from the stack and taken to the hospital. Doctors wanted to operate but his body was in shock and couldn’t handle the surgery.
The Kerlees made the painful decision to let their son go.
“My husband’s comment then was, ‘I know where my son is going, and I don’t want to put him through hell to get to heaven,’” Janice said.
Turning tragedy into triumph
But these last 20 years haven’t all been bad for the Kerlees.
The family moved to Bryan from Tennessee to be closer to the Aggie community.
Janice penned a book on her healing process called “The Chance to Say Goodbye: Hope for Grieving Parents."
Comstock, also known as the bonfire’s 13th man, has also used his story to help inspire others. Comstock’s story is the focus of a new documentary called "The 13th Man," which takes a look back at the history of the bonfire, and John’s life, now 20 years after.
Comstock said, “I speak to this day under the name The 13th Man.”
The bonfire no longer takes place on campus, but students have resumed an unofficial bonfire that burns every November.
It takes place off campus. This year’s is scheduled for next week.