Texas A&M bonfire will not return to campus

Rescue workers dig through a bonfire structure that collapsed Nov. 18, 1999, on the Texas A&M campus in College Station, killing 12 people and injuring several others. The bonfire, made of thousands of logs, was a longtime annual tradition ahead of Texas A&M/UT-Austin football games but was suspended after the 1999 tragedy. Credit: Adrees A. via REUTERS

By Sneha Dey, The Texas Tribune

After a monthslong review, Texas A&M University decided not to bring back the student bonfire tradition it discontinued 25 years ago after a deadly accident, President Mark Welsh III said Tuesday.

For decades, students built a 60-foot bonfire every year ahead of football matches between A&M and the University of Texas at Austin. The tradition was suspended after tragedy struck in 1999, when a stack of logs collapsed in the middle of the night, killing 12 people and injuring dozens, some severely.

Welsh said reviving the tradition would not be in the best interest of the university.

“After careful consideration, I decided that Bonfire, both a wonderful and tragic part of Aggie history, should remain in our treasured past,” Welsh said.

With UT-Austin joining the Southeastern Conference, this year the Aggies will face off against the Longhorns for the first time since 2011. Welsh had formed a committee to come up with ways to commemorate the renewed rivalry.

Among the recommendations was a proposal to resume the bonfire with university oversight.

Regent John Bellinger, who chaired the committee, reached out to families of all 12 Aggies who died in the 1999 tragedy to get their input about restarting the tradition.

Sources close to committee discussions told The Texas Tribune in April that the regents spearheaded the proposal to resume the bonfire and did so mainly with older alumni in mind.

The committee had recommended that engineers and contractors design and build the bonfire. That’s in part because, in settlements with families of the victims of the 1999 tragedy, Texas A&M had committed to providing architectural and engineering oversight if they brought back the tradition.

Welsh said he considered input from the university community before making his decision. Most of those who gave their feedback said they did not want the bonfire to return.

“If students weren’t organizing, leading and building the Bonfire, then they [the public] didn’t think we should bring it back,” Welsh said. “The committee was also clear in its position that the only legally viable option for the return of the campus Bonfire was for it to be an engineer-designed, contractor-built project.”

A golf tournament and a run to carry the game ball from Austin to College Station are some of the celebrations the university will instead host to commemorate the rivalry, Welsh said.

The Texas Tribune partners with Open Campus on higher education coverage.

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/06/05/texas-am-bonfire/.

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