The Bonfire Tragedy
Nearly 20 years ago, on a mid-November night with partly cloudy skies above and enormous enthusiasm below, more than 50 Texas A&M students and former students were busy upholding Aggie tradition at the site of the bonfire stack on the school’s main campus.
At 2:42 a.m. the towering collection of thousands of timber logs gave way and in the immediate aftermath, 11 young men and women were killed. Another victim died in the days that followed.
The 12th Man.
The memory of that horrific event still brings profuse pain to Aggieland. Words still fail to adequately capture the range of emotions which existed then and remain equally heartfelt by so many today.
A memorial now occupies the site where the unthinkable occurred, and the dozen young lives lost that night are honored there for all time.
For many with ties to the school, recounting that night and the years of anguish which have followed is difficult. Yet nothing which has happened in the last 30 years in College Station has bonded the community together more than this catastrophe.
To recount the events which took place in the early morning hours of Thursday, November 18, 1999, excerpts are provided here from the official Department of Homeland Security Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) report put together by the U.S. Fire Administration’s Technical Report Series and released on November 10, 2003.
The FEMA Report Overview
In keeping with a ninety-year old tradition, fifty-eight people were working to construct the fourth tier of the 1999 bonfire stack on the campus of the Texas A&M University during the early morning hours of November 18, 1999. The bonfire is ignited every year on the eve of the football game between Texas A&M and its arch-rival, the University of Texas at Austin. The forty-foot stack, consisting of approximately 5,000 logs, collapsed, killing eleven people and sending twenty-eight to area hospitals. One of the injured would later die, bringing the total number killed in the incident to twelve.
There were emergency medical personnel from the University’s Emergency Medical Service at the scene when the collapse occurred. EMS personnel immediately began to triage the injured bonfire workers and to assist with the rescue effort.
The first call to 911 was received by the City of College Station’s Emergency Communications Center at 02:43 hours. The caller reported that the bonfire stack had collapsed on campus and as many as thirty people may be trapped. An engine company and an ALS ambulance from the College Station Fire Department were dispatched and arrived on the scene within four and one half minutes.
The first firefighters to arrive at the incident were confronted with a scene eerily reminiscent of the children’s game of pick-up-sticks. Command was established and additional resources were ordered immediately upon realization of the magnitude of the event. The rescue and recovery effort lasted almost twenty-four hours and involved over 3,200 individuals from over fifty different agencies.
The magnitude and unique nature of the incident quickly attracted (national) attention. At the height of the incident, approximately fifty satellite television trucks were broadcasting from the scene, including a number of Regional television stations that broadcast live from the scene throughout the event. Several of the news agencies were from Spanish language-only media organizations.
There were three distinct phases of operations during the event. The first phase involved the triage and rapid transport of the majority of the victims. Twenty-seven of the twenty-eight victims who required transport to a medical facility were transported within the first hour. A twenty-eighth victim was severely pinned within the stack and could not be transported until he had been extricated. Phase Two of the incident involved the prolonged and tedious process of extracting victims who were still alive from the stack. The final phase encompassed the removal of the bodies of the deceased and the complete dismantling of the bonfire stack.
Texas A&M University is a close-knit community and the tragic event had a significant impact not only on the student body, but the local community as well. The (outpouring of) assistance and support from the citizens of the area as well as from other universities throughout the state was overwhelming.
Shortly after the incident, the president of the University appointed an independent commission of inquiry to determine the cause of the collapse. The commission was assisted in their inquiry by a number of experts, as well as staff from the University. On May 2, 2000, the Commission released their much-anticipated findings.
Their inquiry concluded that the 1999 bonfire collapsed due to a number of both physical and organizational factors. According to the Report’s Summary of Findings, the structural collapse of the bonfire stack was driven by a containment failure in the first stack of logs. Two primary factors caused this failure: the first was excessive internal stresses driven primarily by aggressive wedging of second stack logs into the first stack. The second was inadequate containment strength around the first stack, which resulted in structure failure.
Hoop stress results from outward pressure in a cylindrical structure, like a barrel, that is due to internal lateral forces. Design, shape, or even gravity can drive these forces. Hoop strength is the ability of a cylindrical structure to contain hoop stress. Hoop strength is normally provided by some containing mechanism; the metal hoops on a barrel, for example. The lack of metal cables on the first tier reduced the hoop strength on the first tier and contributed to the structural collapse.
Organizational factors resulted in an environment in which a complex and dangerous structure was allowed to be built without adequate physical or engineering controls. Organizational failure included the absence of an appropriate written design or design process; a cultural bias, which impedes risk identification; and the lack of a proactive risk management approach.
In addition to the special bonfire commission, OSHA and the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission conducted inquiries into the collapse in order to determine if any of their regulations were violated by any of the participants of the bonfire. Neither agency uncovered any act or violation which warranted any further action.
The bonfire collapse reinforced the need for pre-incident planning and the necessity for developing and exercising emergency management plans.
An adequate and reliable Communication System is essential during a large-scale event.
Think big. Scale down.
An event involving multiple casualties can quickly exceed the capabilities of local medical facilities.
The incident reinforced the necessity of a strong incident management system.
An organization learns a great deal about itself and its members during a disaster.
For the complete FEMA report on the Bonfire tragedy, Google “U.S. Fire Administration Technical Report Series Bonfire Collapse.”
A wonderful tribute to the fallen can be found by searching the online archives of the Texas A&M
student newspaper, The Battalion, and its story, “Remembering the 12,” originally published on
November 16, 2017.