The Burning Desire of Texas A&M
Fifteen years after the horrific collapse that killed 12 students at Texas A&M, the Aggies are once again building -- and setting ablaze -- a monstrous conflagration. Which begs only one question: Why?
A BLAZE ERUPTS in the eastern sky -- daybreak comes hard and fast in Texas. A dozen pickup trucks are parked on the dirt of a clearing. A grove of post oak and cedar spreads in three directions. Beyond the woods is a ranch. In a chicken coop over there, something serious must be going down because the roosters are absolutely shrieking, like berserk warriors on the brink of an atrocity. In the beds of the pickups, blanketed forms shift. People are sleeping in there, have been since last night. They're undergraduates from Texas A&M University, and between the sudden sunlight and the animal racket, they begrudgingly arise. They pull on coveralls and sharpen ax blades and pinch black plugs of dip into their gums. Soon the trees in this grove, a pocket of dusty vegetation 30 miles northwest of College Station, will be mostly gone, transfigured into a four-story tower, then torched. The back of one guy's T-shirt says: "Build the Hell Out of Bonfire."
If you've heard of this pyrotechnic Texas A&M tradition -- at one time the most notorious ritual in all of college football -- chances are it's because you remember how its timber immensity, almost complete but not quite, buckled during a work shift in the wee hours of Nov. 18, 1999, and came crashing down in a terrifying cascade. Fifty-eight students, most between the ages of 17 and 21, were crawling all over the stack at the time, engaged in various duties. Twelve of them died, 27 were injured, their bodies crushed and twisted. Suddenly, for the worst of reasons, people around the country were aware of this Aggie tradition, which had evolved into such an institution that it had become a proper noun: Bonfire.
It was also a tradition that had, the news coverage suggested, run amok. An estimated 8,000 undergraduates, some 25 percent of the student population, helped erect Bonfire. It was an entirely student-staffed and student-managed project nonetheless supported by the university and in part financed by it. Incredibly, it now seems, Bonfire was built and burned on campus -- sprinkler systems installed on rooftops to keep Bonfire's cinders from setting the campus ablaze -- and ignited before A&M's annual rivalry game on Thanksgiving Day against the University of Texas. A hundred thousand people would show up for the almost liturgical incineration, an event known as Burn. It comprised 8,000 logs, rose more than 90 feet into the air and weighed in excess of 1,000 tons. It had the shape of a wedding cake but also bore an uncomfortable resemblance to depictions of the Tower of Babel. It was hyped as the biggest bonfire not only in the world but also probably in history. The media seemed to relish reporting that hundreds of gallons of jet fuel were used to ignite it.
One also gleaned from the post-collapse coverage that a complex student hierarchy ruled over Bonfire, that a secret society -- the Redpots -- stood atop this hierarchy and passed down its arcane construction know-how to a new group of initiates each year, like a priesthood. Over the decades, Bonfire's Redpot ranks had produced a good number of Texans of consequence, perhaps none more consequent than Gov. Rick Perry, Aggie Class of 1972, the quadrennially entertaining GOP presidential candidate. One heard about the brutal initiation rites, the booze, the complaints from faculty that students were becoming obsessed, with the hardest-core Bonfire types basically dropping out for fall semester so they could work without academic impediment on what seemed to many outsiders a colossal waste of time. If Texas A&M is often viewed by outsiders as a kind of cult -- it was an all-male military academy from its founding in 1876 until the mid-1960s and has retained many of its rituals and traditions -- then it seemed as though Bonfire was a cult within a cult, the end result of which was the death of 12 people. Amid the emotional and litigious wreckage of 1999, A&M's administrators canceled Bonfire. But they ended up merely banishing it. Every year for more than a decade now, Aggies students have been building and setting ablaze an off-campus stack of timber. Unsanctioned by the university and established without its consent, the new iteration has been described in the media as a "rogue" Bonfire, a "renegade" Bonfire. And it has grown. Word had it that thousands of A&M undergrads were again participating, that the ancient hierarchical system was back in place. It seemed inconceivable; was there another campus in America where a tradition could have survived such a tragedy? Or survived the fact that its putative reason for existing in the first place -- the rivalry game with the Longhorns, which ended in 2011 -- is no longer held? It was as if the Aggies couldn't help themselves.
I booked a flight to College Station in search of an answer to the obvious question: Why?
THE ROOSTERS ARE still shrieking when, from the slumber of their pickups, three large dudes emerge. Powerfully built, well over six feet apiece, they're manly men with manly names -- Joseph Howard, Shane Hennig, Andrew Pekowski. You'd want them on your side if things got dicey at a dive bar. From a distance they look like oil-patch roughnecks. Dressed in black coveralls, their backs at the shoulder blades are stitched with red letters: "AGGIE BONFIRE REDPOT." Like nearly everyone here today, their heads are encased in vintage G.I. helmets. Only don't call them helmets within anyone's earshot. Here they're called "pots." And the pots on their heads are, of course, red.
All three Redpots carry ceremonial ax handles branded with various insignia. The pots, the coveralls, the handles like scepters -- this is the classic uniform of the senior Redpot going back many years, well before 1999. Pekowski likes to contrast the Redpots with A&M's famed Yell Leaders, the students, almost always cadets, who lead the complex series of Aggie "yells" (never say "cheers," never call them "cheerleaders") at games in their pristine white outfits. Elected each year by the student body, Yell Leaders are the face of Aggiedom, its tradition keepers. Redpots are in the background, doing their own kind of tradition-keeping, the dirty work of building Bonfire -- "the demons to their angels," Pekowski says.
The clearing where Bonfire's leadership slept the night before serves as both a loading area for logs and a parking lot, and by 7 in the morning the cars are arriving in force. Mostly they carry Bonfire's working class. In the lexicon they're known as "meat," and they're divided into crews based loosely on residence hall. Each dorm has a leader, who reports to the Redpots and wears a yellow helmet -- Yellowpots. Of the 26 dorms on the A&M campus, a mere 10 have Bonfire crews, as opposed to pre-1999, when every residence hall was represented. The Corps of Cadets also has a number of crews represented. Altogether, today's headcount is 157, several orders of magnitude less than a typical turnout before 1999, when as many as 3,000 would show up each day.
Relating these facts to me as we stand in the clearing near the woods is my guide to all things Bonfire, Dion McInnis, age 33 -- an "Old Ag," as former A&M students, no matter how young, are wont to refer to one another. Class of 2003, McInnis is one of the founders of the group that now calls itself Student Bonfire. Earlier he'd told me, "I was class of '03. But didn't graduate till '09. That's the infamous decade plan."
The land we're on belongs to a man who wants its trees cleared for reasons no one can exactly say, possibly to create a pasture for cattle. The kids perform the service for free, which is how Bonfire acquires its logs every year: in effect, the landowners donate the timber. To that end, not far from the line of pickups, several students in beige overalls and brown-painted helmets are setting Stihl chainsaws abuzz. These are your Brownpots, a kind of executive lumberjack and the only people at Bonfire allowed to use machines. Trees at Cut are not felled with chainsaws but chopped by hand with axes. As McInnis explains, "When you cut by ax, every single log has been invested in. Every single log was a challenge and an obstacle. With a chainsaw, you wouldn't get that sense of ownership." The Brownpots' main job then is to go around with their Stihls and lop off troublesome boughs to more quickly create logs out of felled oaks and cedars. The most prominent Brownpot is a taciturn North Carolinian and member of the Corps who, says McInnis, "has the most appropriate name in the history of the Brownpots." Duke Sawyer. "No," Sawyer says when asked whether Duke is a nickname. Then he expands: "My parents really liked John Wayne."
In the Bonfire's heyday, there would be as many as eight Redpots. Such numbers are no longer necessary. Howard is Head Civilian, essentially the chief lumberjack. Hennig is Truck Pot, in charge of hauling the logs. And Pekowski, Redpot Headstack, is basically Bonfire CEO. Blond, blue-eyed, with a commanding presence, Pekowski could go into acting after college and be cast in high school movies as homecoming king. Instead, next year, he'll begin graduate studies in marine geology. His pant legs are tucked into the tops of broken-in ankle-high cowboy boots. (Everyone at Cut wears cowboy boots.) He twirls his ax handle like a baton. He comes from Austin and, shockingly, from a family of University of Texas alumni. He admits he probably would have gone there if he hadn't received a rejection letter. "So I came here. At first it wasn't that big of a deal. But then I went to Fish Camp and I came back the most redass Aggie you've ever seen."
Like many Aggie utterances, this one requires a passel of gloss. Freshmen at A&M are called "fish," a term borrowed from the Corps of Cadets (fish = plebes); "Fish Camp" is a kind of intense orientation program; "redass," a possible portmanteau of redneck and coonass, is an Aggie concept that's hard to define "without sounding like a total try-hard," McInnis says. Best I could gather, it means something like displaying a high level of school spirit, but in a non-dorky way.
Indeed, at Cut, all kinds of things are said and done that make no sense until you ask McInnis to translate. When first encountered, Bonfire leaves an outsider in a state of perplexity akin to that of an anthropologist in the Amazon making first contact. As they fan out into the woods to start the day's cutting, teams of kids haul mysterious and apparently very heavy boxes on their shoulders, like Egyptian slaves. These, McInnis explains, are dorm-crew ax boxes, and many predate 1999. When I'm asked whether I'd like to help "f--- a log," it's not what you think: to f--- a log is to be on a team that moves felled trees by human power alone. And when Redpot Hennig, sitting on a log, talks about how he's "proud of my son " Wait, he has a son?
Again -- not what you think. Pekowski's pot rests on the bed of his pickup. Inscribed in marker on the side of the helmet is a list of names and years stretching back to 1971. One becomes a Redpot by being chosen by one's elders. You spend your junior year as a kind of apprentice, known as Junior Redpot, often abbreviated as "Jerp." At the end of your Jerp year, you choose your successor, to whom you must pass on the ways and means of managing Bonfire. The names on Pekowski's pot therefore represent the Headstack "line," a hereditary metaphor Bonfire fully embraces. They call Redpots who came before them their "Dads." They call Redpots they've chosen to replace them their "Sons." One name on Pekowski's pot stands out: "R. Perry '72." The Governor is Pekowski's Bonfire ancestor, his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather.
JAMES FUQUA, TEXAS A&M class of 1983, lives and works at the end of a 12-mile driveway. The Lazy U ranch, halfway between Amarillo and Wichita Falls in the middle of the Texas Panhandle, has been in his family since 1894. His great-grandfather, J.J. Summers, helped pioneer the Texas-to-Kansas cattle drives that "Lonesome Dove" was based on. Not one but two of Fuqua's ancestors died at the Alamo. In downtown Dallas and Houston, there are streets named Fuqua. And rounding out his entrenched Texasness is the fact that Fuqua was a Senior Redpot in 1982, when Bonfire had arguably reached its zenith.
"The Redpots were extremely tough on each other back then. Nowadays, they'd probably accuse us of assault and battery."
- James Fuqua
"The Redpots were known to be a little rough back then," Fuqua tells me one day from his ranch. "We were extremely tough on each other. I'm almost afraid to get into it too much. Nowadays they'd probably accuse us of assault and battery." The Corps of Cadets has, since the beginning, been the soul of A&M; military service is to the school what Catholicism is to Notre Dame. And so in Fuqua's day, and for almost all of Bonfire's history on campus, an ethos of military ruggedness prevailed. His Redpot initiation involved ax-handle whuppings. (Imagine a batter in a batting cage and young Fuqua's backside hung out over the plate.) It also involved something called Nezzie's Night. Nezzie's was the rankest dive bar in all of Brazos County. It attracted a certain crowd -- a roughneck war-vet cowhand ex-con biker type crowd. Nezzie's was where the Redpots each spring held a secret meeting to announce their new initiates. It being secret, only other Redpots were allowed in the room for the meeting. Nezzie's had only one room. As a new initiate, "My job was to clear that bar so we could have the meeting," Fuqua says. "Never been in a bar fight until that night."
These tests of toughness were meant to steel new Redpots for the job ahead. Bonfire season was arduous on both a body and a mind. So arduous, Fuqua says, "The football coaches every now and then would send us their hard cases." One way or another, apprentice Redpots learned the techniques of Bonfire management from their "dada." Like a kind of technical folklore, they were passed down generation to generation -- no blueprint, nothing engineered. "An ax handle was not a tool of hazement, it was a tool of instruction," says Griff Lasley, Redpot Headstack of 1973. "If you screwed up, you got instructed on how to tie that log right. And by God you'd get it right next time. Was there a plan written down? No. The plan was etched in my brain -- and my backside." Bonfire was, in that way, the ne plus ultra of an Aggie concept that lies close to the school's soul: that of the "other education," a kind of practical learning that comes from doing, not studying. At some point in Bonfire's evolution from a trash pile at the beginning of the 20th century to a monstrous ziggurat, the process of building Bonfire usurped the burning of it. There was something deeply appealing about the sheer audacious pointlessness of the endeavor. As one oft-quoted Bonfire slogan, quoted to me by Fuqua, goes: "Ask any Redpot: We burned it down to get it the hell out of the way for next year."
AT THE BONFIRE CUT site in 2014, there are no ax-handle beatings, no hard-case football players, no Redpots clearing the bikers out of Nezzie's. There is, instead, Alia Eckardt, sophomore civil engineering major and one of the chiefs of the Lechner dorm crew, who are now in the process of setting a wedge in the trunk of a 30-foot post oak. The wedge expands as the crewmembers take turns whaling at the tree. Wood chips rain down, amid a chorus of profane catcalls. When the tree at last teeters -- the fall-paths carefully cleared of humans -- the crew yells "Headache!" and it crashes down amid a joyous clamor.
Lechner is one of A&M's two honors dorms, and a quick survey of this Lechner crowd reveals the following majors: chemical engineering, pre-medicine, computer science, entomology, biochemistry-genetics (a double major), nuclear engineering. One scrawny-armed fish looks to be about 13. It is practically inevitable that Lechner's crewmembers are known at Bonfire as Lechnerds. On one side of Eckardt's pot are the words "NERD CHIEF," on the other "BOTTOM POT." The other crew chiefs are dubbed Strange Pot and Charm Pot. Bottom? Strange? Charm? "Those are three types of quarks," one kid explains. Lechnerds.
Nearly six feet tall and trim as a tennis pro, Eckardt wears denim overalls. A fawn-colored braid falls from under her pot and over one shoulder. When she wields an ax, it is with power. In appearance and dexterity, there is nothing nerdy about Alia Eckardt. Her major is civil engineering. Born and raised in Dallas to parents who are not Aggies, she turned down Cornell to attend A&M. At first she was unsure she'd made the right decision. "I can easily say, if I had not found Bonfire in my first semester, I would not be nearly as happy at this university as I am now," she says. "Especially for our fish, the nerdy ones, the ones who aren't necessarily going to go out and meet people, Bonfire gives them a community."
Eckardt and several other Lechnerds are wearing what appear to be special Lechner-only T-shirts. On the back is an architectural blueprint, complete with diagrams, measurements, dimensions, degrees of angle. It's an accurate depiction of the contemporary structure, and as it happens, the old Lechner crews before 1999 had a similar T-shirt. When investigators went looking for any document at all with a diagram of the wedding-cake tower, anything that could help them diagnose potential design flaws, the Lechner T-shirt was all they found.
OF THE MANY cruel ironies of the 1999 tragedy, perhaps the cruelest was that Bonfire's collapse occurred at a school known for the eminence of its engineering programs. "It never occurred to me that the whole construction of it and the oversight of it was not being done by engineers, with Texas A&M being an engineering school," says Janice Kerlee, the mother of Tim Kerlee Jr., who died from the collapse.
Ray Bowen, A&M class of 1958, who worked on Bonfire as a cadet -- every cadet at A&M worked on Bonfire in those days -- was university president from 1994 to 2002. Bowen himself is a mechanical engineer and a now-retired professor of the discipline. The independent commission set up to investigate the collapse found an almost total lack of expert oversight of Bonfire. It seems blindingly obvious now, but leaving the structure's development entirely to students -- which had become its raison d'etre, the Aggies' other education -- produced an ever-evolving tradition that allowed bad practices to creep in. This, perhaps more than anything else, led to Bonfire's demise. "A rational person could say: 'Well, you were really dumb. You should have intervened,'" Bowen says. "And that may well be true."
It's a testament to the power of the Bonfire tradition that after the commission released its report in May 2000, A&M spent two years considering from every angle how Bonfire might be brought back to campus. The consensus among administrators and students, Bowen says, was that Bonfire ought to be brought back. He set up a task force that, after consulting civil and structural engineers, suggested a potential redesign as well as substantial organizational changes: Although students would still "build" Bonfire, they'd be surrounded by professional construction experts at all times. Debate ensued: If these changes were made, could Bonfire even be considered a student project any longer? But then the discussion came to a halt. When A&M priced liability insurance, the estimates that came back exceeded $2 million a year. In 2002, Bowen announced at a news conference that Bonfire was now an impossibility. "In our hearts we wanted to do it," Bowen says. "But our brains wouldn't let us."
TEXAS A&M IS not a campus known for its student protests. But after Bowen made his Bonfire-nullification statement in February 2002, several hundred people massed in front of the president's mansion. It was a polite crowd. They were careful, for instance, to stay off the lawn. And when Bowen came outside, a civil discussion ensued. They called him "sir," and then dispersed. Many of them, though, gravitated next to a dorm called Walton Hall. Dion McInnis was already a well-known campus figure -- he'd even run for Yell Leader in 2001 -- and he, too, was amped to restart the Bonfire tradition. He addressed the crowd in front of Walton. "Bonfire is something you have to take back," he remembers telling them.
McInnis today lives with his wife and two young daughters in an apartment near the main strip of College Station nightlife, such as it is. From his front door, it's about a one-minute walk to the Dixie Chicken, which has served since its establishment in 1974 as Bonfire's unofficial clubhouse. The exterior resembles a honky-tonk as dreamed up by the Disney people who designed Frontierland. On the inside, it's pure Texas, with outlaw country on an infinite loop and Lone Star longnecks sliding down the bars, not to mention photos of old Bonfires all over the walls. When I meet McInnis there, he wears a Dixie Chicken ball cap and the beard he always grows for the duration of Bonfire season. In addition to being a Student Bonfire board member, he's become its photo documentarian, shooting pictures every Bonfire workday from September through November, to the chagrin of his wife, whom he calls a "Bonfire widow."
Ever since he was a kid, McInnis desperately wanted to be an Aggie, but he entered A&M as a transfer student in January 2000, the second semester of his freshman year -- thereby missing the 1999 Bonfire, a source of shame and even guilt for him to this day. He was put into Walton Hall, a bare-bones all-male cinder block dormitory directly across the street from the Dixie Chicken, and one that had long had a reputation for residents with a rowdy and emphatic fealty to Bonfire.
In 2002, the same fall as the march on the president's mansion, a group of Waltonites and some others from the crowd that day hacked some brush and lit the resulting pile of sticks the day before the Thanksgiving game. Through word of mouth, they were able to attract more than a thousand spectators. The next year, their ambitions grew. They decided they wanted to build a proper vertical Stack, with a center pole and tiers of logs. But they also knew there was no way they could go back to the old structure. As it happened, Bowen's task force had published a report that contained a potential redesign of the Stack. The group had also reached out to a few Old Ags who'd worked on Bonfire before 1999 and were sympathetic to the cause. One of these, a working structural engineer, helped the group put the design specs from the report into practice.
The central idea of the re-envisioned Bonfire structure was ingenious. Most importantly, every log would touch the ground. In 1999 and for more than 30 years prior, each tier of logs above the first essentially rested on the one below. Now, to preserve that classic wedding-cake shape, they would simply use logs of different heights to create the five tiers. The tallest, cut to a uniform length of 32 feet, would surround the center pole, a somewhat shorter set would surround that tallest group, and so on. The resulting structure would be analogous to a fully extended telescope. Each "layer" would be secured internally by tying individual logs to their neighbors with baling wire -- a pre-collapse technique. Then, as a final fail-safe, each doughnut-shaped tier would be wound with so-called "supersets" -- aircraft-grade steel cable wrapped around and around, then cinched tight. The result was a shrunken version -- less than half the size, incredibly -- of the behemoths that had emerged in the 1960s. In those days, two utility poles were spliced together to create a soaring 90-foot mast as the center pole. No longer. One utility pole would now do, sunk 15 feet into the ground. To provide support during construction, four shorter poles would be set in the ground at each of the cardinal directions, then linked to the center pole up top with pipes welded to collars on each of the poles. That way, as teams of students wired logs into place, the developing structure would be less likely to shift.
The design hasn't changed since 2003, and Student Bonfire has organized itself in the years since expressly to ensure that it doesn't. Now a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the group has bylaws and a board of directors made up of six A&M graduates. The directors have made safety in all phases, from Cut to Stack, a religion. Alcohol and hazing are forbidden. Many of the minor traditions that had become woven into the larger Bonfire tradition have been discarded as irrelevant or dangerous or both. The chairman of the board is Scott Coker, 44, who was a Yellowpot in the 1990s. "What we tell the students is, if you want to pad your ego and try to outdo the year before you, then outdo them on safety or getting participation up or fundraising. But outdoing them on how big Stack is, that's not going to happen. It's going to be the same height and same design every year."
THE GROUP OF students who led the construction of the 2003 Bonfire didn't want to call themselves Redpots. "Redpot is such a respected, almost sacrosanct title that we felt it would be disrespectful to just go, 'Welp, I'm a Redpot!" McInnis says. So they went with an alternate title, "Greypots," and made a point of reaching out to old Bonfire leaders from as many eras as possible. The response was, at best, mixed.
"Was there a plan written down? No. The plan was etched in my brain -- and my backside."
- Griff Lasley
They encountered two genres of disapproval: There were those who thought they were a bunch of try-hards, playing at a tradition they had no business attempting to revive. "They hadn't earned it yet," Andy Townend says. Others thought any Bonfire not occurring on campus and without all the old traditions intact was not deserving of the capital "B." Some of those Old Ags, including Townend, have since emphatically come around. Bonfire's former Redpots form a loose fraternal network, and by 2006, enough of them had given their blessing that the pots of Student Bonfire's leaders went from grey to red.
Then there were those who thought Bonfire should forever remain a thing of the past -- a criticism that, to some degree, remains alive today. "Pre-tragedy, I thought it was a great tradition," says Mike Guerra, a 1987 Redpot and now an attorney in McAllen, Texas. "After the accident I'm not so sure. Because the nature of the tragedy is so intense, so severe, it puts a damper on everything. You can't look back fondly on it anymore, knowing what happened."
A kind of guilt appears to persist among some Redpots down through the generations. "Twelve kids died," Griff Lasley says. "Why? Was there something I didn't pass down? What did I miss? What did I not stress? What did I not do in my job," and here he gathers himself, "that led those people to lose their lives? Am I responsible?" He pauses again. "It's hard for me to talk about. It's personal." Lasley is a staunch supporter of Student Bonfire; his son, A&M Class of 2003, played a role in its founding.
Then there are the nine Redpots of 1999, for whom the reconstituted Bonfire is an especially touchy subject. You're invited to imagine the psychological havoc experienced by someone who helped build a structure that killed 12 of his co-students, some of them close friends -- to say nothing of the protracted legal process that forced them to endure deposition after deposition as the lawsuits played out. The parties settled in 2004, for $5.85 million, an amount mostly paid by their parents' homeowners' insurance polices.
Travis Johnson was Headstack in 1999. He now works his family's cotton, sorghum and sugarcane farm in deepest South Texas, and he's not been back to see the off-campus Bonfire, but he says his thoughts have changed over the years. "They've proven they can do it well. I think it's a good thing." He has no plans to visit Stack or go to a Burn, but says that's because he lives so far from College Station. It took awhile for Gilly Riojas, who runs a ranch in South Texas, to bring himself to visit a Student Bonfire site. But eventually he did. Ditto Stephen Herring.
"The 10-year mark for me was the first time I could go back and face it," Herring says. What he saw there that night at Stack in 2009 "helped me with the healing process -- because there was so much I didn't remember, that I had just blacked out. And talking with those guys out there, they were helping me, but I didn't realize until later that I was helping them. Best way I can describe it is being a parent. We all want our kids to do better than we've done ourselves. And as we watch them grow up, all we can really do is guide them, to help them make their own decisions, and to learn from our mistakes."
TIM AND JANICE KERLEE left their home outside Memphis not long after their son's death in the collapse -- drawn by the impulse to in some way, in any way, help. "When we moved here, we really felt that the Lord was telling us we had to move to College Station and help the students heal from the Bonfire accident," Janice says. Formerly a high school math teacher, she joined the Methodist ministry and eventually went to seminary.
I visit the Kerlees at their house in Bryan, the town next to College Station. The interior is one big homage to their lost son, their only child, who is famous for having directed emergency responders to other trapped students whom he could see -- he was pinned under the rubble high on the heap -- and the responders could not. He died in the hospital some days later. He was 17 years old.
Tim Kerlee is one of at least three parents of the 12 students who died to have had some contact with Student Bonfire, which has not made a concerted effort to approach the families. "Because it is so sensitive, we decided early on that it would be best to let them find us," McInnis says. Still, in 2012, McInnis reached out after he noticed a posting by Tim Kerlee on an A&M message board called TexAgs. The thread of responses suggested that the off-campus Bonfire had forgotten in some way about the 12 who were lost. "I wanted to let him know that, to the contrary, his son is vividly remembered by people who never met him," McInnis says. "And I wanted to introduce him to these people."
At a coffee shop on campus, Tim Kerlee Sr. met with McInnis, Coker and the two Senior Redpots. Kerlee had already heard about the structural changes and the rigorous safety measures, and he approved. "But I cautioned them," Kerlee recalls. "I said, 'I don't want you to think that that's approval of the Bonfire itself. Because every time you all start again in the fall, I worry. Because I don't want any other parent to have to go through what I went through.'"
MUCH LIKE THE 9/11 Memorial, the Bonfire Memorial was erected on the footprint of the tragedy. Dedicated in 2004, it consists of a granite ring that circumscribes the emergency perimeter established by first responders. Twelve "portals" rise from various spots on the ring, one for each student. They're meant to represent doorways. The face of each student is cast in bronze on each inside wall. Inscriptions and quotations meaningful to each student are inscribed on bronze plates on the opposite wall.
Jerry Ebanks, the father of Michael Ebanks, who was a freshman when he died in the collapse, now lives in College Station with his wife. In his 70s, with gray hair and hearing aids, he agrees to take me on a tour of the Memorial. When we come to his son's portal, we enter the shelter created by its walls: Michael, he says, was the kind of kid who worked three jobs to pay for flying lessons while still in high school. He got his pilot's license immediately upon turning 17. He was studying aerospace engineering. As with all young deaths, his was a case of promise lost. Many of the inscriptions in the portals are excerpts from letters sent to the families in the wake of the tragedy. "This one stirs me the most," Ebanks says, staring at the plaque. "I mean they all light my fire. But the one from this girl
"Pre-tragedy, I thought it was a great tradition. After the accident ... I'm not so sure."
- Mike Guerra
"Michael had taught himself how to play the piano. And about all he liked to play was classical music. So the night before the collapse, he went to the Flag Room to study. You've been to the student center? You've seen the big Flag Room there with the piano? Well, he went in there to study -- and to play music. And so he studied awhile and then went over to play the piano awhile. And when he went back to study again, he wound up sitting real close to the girl who wrote this letter.
"She was a sophomore at the time -- she's now an attorney in Austin -- and she said to Michael, 'Boy, you're really good at the piano.' He said, 'Well, you know, a lot of people get mad, it distracts them while they're studying. But I can't help it. I just love playing it.' So they talked a little. She found out where he was from and that he was an aerospace engineering major. He mentioned about having two tests the next day and said, 'More than likely, though, I'm gonna wind up out on Stack. I'll be out there putting the finishing touches on Bonfire.' I think her sister, who was a senior at A&M at the time, somehow found out about it early in the morning, and called up Sarah and woke her up, 6:30 in the morning, and said, 'Sarah! Bonfire! Stack collapsed!'
"In the fog it didn't register. Then it hit her. And she got to thinking about having met this freshman the night before who talked about going out to Stack." His voice turns husky; he pauses. "And apparently he must have made one hell of an impression on her " Another pause. "When they finally posted his pictures online, they mentioned something about where he was from and him being an engineer " his voice cracks. It's the fate of the parent who outlives a child to forever ponder the possibilities of the unlived life. "It really wracked her."
AT THE DIXIE CHICKEN one afternoon this October, I meet with the 2014 Redpots, plus a Brownpot named Curtis Hard. When I ask whether they've ever heard or experienced anti-Bonfire sentiment, they describe how, during the spring of their junior and senior years, they'd gone on fundraising missions for Student Bonfire, setting up tables as "vendors" at A&M alumni events in the major Texas cities. At these events, Pekowski says, "People have come up to us and said: 'Hey, I don't think you should keep building it. What happened should have been the end. Y'all need to stop.'"
Sometimes, the person saying this knew one of the 12 who died or was a Bonfire participant or a student in 1999. For them, Pekowski says, "That's a completely grounded and OK belief. You'd never say to the person: 'No, you're wrong.' By no means are they wrong. But you just have to explain to them that things are different, things are safe "
"It's the same spirit, but different execution," Howard says.
"It's different, but not better or worse," Hard says.
"I think it's safer. It's definitely safer."
"I just don't know how you really say that without stepping on toes," Hard says, and it's clear he's grasped a kind of double bind. By describing Student Bonfire as safer than the old ones, the Redpots would be condemning earlier generations for poor stewardship. By describing their Bonfire as no better, they'd be condemning their own work.
"It is safer," Pekowski says. "It just is."
A silence ensues. They look down at their beers on the table. Twanging country music plays on the Chicken sound system.
"This is one of the hardest subjects to talk about and to deal with."
"It shook the university like 9/11 shook the nation," Hard says.
"What I always tell people is: Wouldn't you want other Aggies to have that same experience again?" Pekowski asks. "If it's safe?"
AT STACK SITE, an expansive pasture 17 miles from Cut site, the auger arrives to hooting celebrations from the crews here today. The atmosphere is celebratory. Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash blare from a speaker hung on a light pole. The auger, a gigantic drill that rests on a truck the size of a townhouse turned on its side, will bore a 15-foot hole into the earth, and into that hole a raw untreated utility pole will be set: center pole.
This day, Oct. 30, marks the beginning of Build, and over the next three weeks, the Redpots will oversee construction of the log tower. Then, on the day before A&M's Thanksgiving day game against LSU, at "zero dark thirty," the logs will be soaked in diesel and set aflame in front of many thousands of people. They hope to break last year's attendance figure of about 12,000, a number that speaks to the off-campus Bonfire's increasing popularity, since last year's Burn was delayed -- because of torrential rains and flooding -- until January. "It was probably Student Bonfire's biggest Burn ever in terms of attendance," McInnis says, "and there wasn't even a freaking tennis match."
"People have come up and said to us: 'It was a sign, it got out of hand. Y'all need to stop.'"
- Andrew Pekowski
More than 200 Bonfire participants are at Stack tonight -- meat, crew chiefs, redass Jerps, try-hard fishes, fathers, sons, Headstacks, Lechnerds -- all chasing that other education, or a sweat-soaked bond, or the filling of some personal void. They're here to assist in the raising of the center pole, a somewhat ceremonial affair, as it was pre-1999.
The auger takes its position. Pekowski twirls his ax handle and barks orders. Jerps pace about, yelling at meat. Hennig gives brief instructions to the auger's pro operators, who raise the 40-foot boom until it's vertical. An enormous drill bit bores into the earth. After a moment, the boom withdraws the bit, its threads packed with topsoil. The drill moves to the side, then rapidly spins, whirling off the dirt in a great brown funnel. "Welcome to Texas," Hennig says.
After several more scoops, the bit starts bringing up hunks of splintered yellow wood. Along with the two pros operating the auger, the Redpots gather around the hole and peer down into it. It's determined that the drill has hit an old center pole from a previous year's Burn. This will be the sixth year of Stacks and Burns on this particular patch of land. The Redpots thought they knew the exact location of all previous center poles and had chosen this very spot with that in mind. They were wrong. The old pole is no problem for the drill, which is powerful enough to blast through wood. But having all that debris scattered around down there raises concerns about the stability of the shaft walls. Then, sure enough, after the auger reaches a depth of about eight feet, a pocket forms in one wall, a small cave.
A man named Dwight has arrived. Legendary Dwight. He is a local, looks to be in his 60s, and speaks with such a spectacular drawl that he's difficult to understand even for other Texans. Short and portly, he wears denim overalls that swaddle an enormous and incredibly spherical beer gut. He's not an Aggie but has been a fixture and unsolicited advice giver and lightly mocked mascot at Bonfire Cuts and Builds going back decades. And he's offering a bit of unsolicited advice now. Shouting above the auger's din, he says "The main thing is you want safety first! Safety first!"
The Redpots go off to confer privately. So now what? They could drill a new hole in a different spot, but that would mean a long delay. Four perimeter poles with guy ropes attached, which will be used to raise the center pole, are already in the ground. To move the hole would be to scramble all that geometry; they'd have to pull up and move the perimeter poles. But they also cannot ignore the pocket. A soft spot in the hole's wall could undermine the stability of the center pole. And it's at this point that certain thoughts begin to creep. You envision a whole structure built atop a wobbly center pole, and you can't keep it out of your head: 1999.
The Redpots, however, do keep it out of their heads. They will later tell me they were focused only on solving the problem. They call the owner of the drilling company that donated the auger's services to them -- an Old Ag and Bonfire participant from the 1980s. He gives some expert counsel; he sees this sort of thing all the time. Just drill a second hole immediately adjacent to the first down to the level of the pocket, effectively erasing the soft spot. Then continue to drill the main hole down to the 15-foot depth. Insert the center pole, dump your dirt back in, tamp everything down.
All this time, the center pole has been resting horizontally on a series of tree stumps carved by the brownpots for this purpose. Now the auger truck's crane lifts the center pole off the stumps. The Jerps huddle on the pole's butt end. They guide it toward the shaft. Much work remains ahead. Using plumb bobs and eight dorm crews pulling on eight ropes attached to the pole, the Redpots will adjust the center pole until it's truly vertical. Then they'll backfill the holes with dirt in meticulous phases, tamping it down firm with steel rods, pouring more dirt, then more tamping, a grueling process. It's about 9 p.m. They will spend the next eight hours tamping and tamping and tamping again. The last pickup will leave the Stack site at 5 the following morning.
Now hanging from the crane, the center pole descends slowly into the hole. And as it does, McInnis shares another backstory with me: In the old days, he says, the Redpots would toss an empty whiskey bottle into the hole. When you heard the glass shatter, you knew the center pole had struck bottom. They did this in 1999, too. It was a tradition, McInnis says, a good-luck ritual. "We don't do that anymore."
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