Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A Disaster: TAMU Bonfire Collapse

This past November 12 was the tenth anniversary of the collapse of Texas A&M University's annual bonfire. A few weeks before their rivalry game with University of Texas, the large stack of logs fell apart while student workers were constructing it. The tragedy claimed the lives of 12 students and injured 27 others.

I grew up in College Station, TX, home of TAMU. I once lived very close to the site, and as a kid I would climb on top of my roof to watch the bonfire. That was a long time ago, of course.

At the time of the collapse, November 1999, I was a sophomore attending university in Pennsylvania. I first heard of the collapse when my advisor pulled me into his office and began asking questions about what happened. I assumed it was nothing more than a shifting of the foundation, as had happened before, requiring a rebuild. In fact, it was a true disaster that would test the very foundations of tradition in my hometown.

The event was a surreal experience for me, as I'm sure it was for many in my hometown. I remember seeing friends from high school being interviewed on television, and wondering how the town I viewed as the safest place in the world could ever be the site of such tragedy.

I was never involved in the bonfire, and I never knew much about its construction. As I learned more about it over the next few years, I was amazed at the recklessness of the university administration. The public, especially those in my hometown, assumed that the bonfire was a safe event because it was blessed by the public officials in charge of it. We had no idea that the students would be allowed to be placed in such danger on a routine basis.

This disaster, as is typically the case, was not a failure of engineering knowledge but a failure of organizational ineptitude. The administration had consistently turned a blind-eye to the bonfire construction process. It was a significant structure that should have been designed, verified, built according to law, and inspected on a regular schedule.

Instead, it was merely sketched out in advance, put up and pounded together with little respect for engineering principles, and tied together with ineffective materials by students who spent a whole semester skipping classes, drinking alcohol, and engaging in institutionalized hazing. TAMU's administration (and many local politicians) allowed this to go on because they were once part of this tradition, and felt the bonfire tradition was something too important to interfere with.

The tragedy was not that the bonfire fell (that was inevitable - it was going to happen at some point), it was that the TAMU administration did so little to protect their student body from an engineering disaster. I'm no fan of in loco parentis in modern colleges, but this was absolute negligence.

The University erected a permanent memorial at the site of the collapse. TAMU did undertake a full investigation and thus far have refused to continue the practice. I'm sure it is not easy for them to consistently deny the requests of alumni who want to start the tradition back up, but I do know that the memorial is clearly visible from the administration building and they need only look out their window to remember why it was cancelled.

I don't think any activity that has proven to be so dangerous should be reinstated. There is nothing that will ever convince me that student's lives should be put at risk. In the end, this disaster probably showed a lot of colleges and universities around the world that they need to take a closer look at their sanctioned events.

There are many ways in which students can show honor to past traditions, engage in creative challenges, and help foster a sense of community. But any activities resembling the Aggie Bonfire, a large structure capable of causing great harm, must be carefully managed by those in responsible charge.



Blogger AmericanDirt said...

When I first saw a link to this article with the word "TAMU" and a big bonfire, I thought it was going to be something that took place somewhere like Indonesia. Now I'm kicking myself that I had never heard of this before, though I was an easily distracted student at the time as well. It's amazing how commonplace these sort of engineering failures are, how many casualties they often elicit, and how rarely the news lingers on them. It remains a profound tragedy for the locals but the rest of the nation quickly forgets. Compare that to Columbine, which happened just a few months after this TAMU tragedy and we still dwell on it routinely. No doubt the ability to hold someone culpable has much to do with it--much harder to do in an incident like this bonfire, though your analysis is very credible. Interesting that you compare this to "in loco parents"--the university's role here should have been to demand inspections and verifiable designs, which is far more intense than a parent would likely expect.

The only major structural engineering disaster that comes to mind that remains a major event in the US was the Kansas City hotel collapse sometime in the early 1980s. But even that only has resonance to me (too young to remember it) because a friend of mine lost his grandparents in that tragedy; most people my age probably have no idea that it occurred. Thanks again for posting this.

November 25, 2009 11:37 PM  

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