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Bonfire Stack Collapse Kills Nine Texas A & M Students

By Paul Duggan

Washington POst -- AUSTIN, Texas

At least nine students at Texas A&M University were killed early Thursday in the collapse of a 40-foot-high stack of heavy logs that was to have been set ablaze before the school’s annual football showdown with rival University of Texas, officials said. Nearly 30 students were injured in the accident, some critically.

In a tragedy that marred a nearly century-old tradition at Texas A&M, the huge bonfire stack, under construction by trained students and others since mid-October, suddenly came crashing down about 2:30 a.m. CST while 60 to 70 students were standing atop it, officials said. The accident occurred on a field northeast of the campus in College Station, about 80 miles east of here.

Throughout the morning and afternoon, as the death toll climbed, rescuers with saws, heavy equipment and listening devices searched for survivors in a sprawling pile of about 4,000 logs, many of them 10 to 12 feet long. Rescue workers said they had seen two or three victims in the pile who appeared to be dead.

The accident stunned the 43,500-student campus. As dozens of rescuers worked to free any survivors from the pile, scores of young people stood nearby, holding hands and praying, their faces etched with shock and grief. Others gathered at churches in the area, sitting quietly in prayer circles, heads bowed. University officials scheduled an evening memorial service at a campus auditorium.

“The sadness is unbelievable, just devastating,” said Justin Youens, an A&M sophomore and a friend of one of the dead, sophomore Jerry Self. Youens said he was active with Self in a campus ministry. “It hasn’t hit me yet,” he said in a soft voice. “There’s so much tradition here, so much spirit, you can’t believe something like this could happen. I woke up this morning and found out I lost a friend.”

At College Station Medical Center, officials said 11 students were treated for relatively minor injuries and released, and two others were admitted to the hospital in serious condition, suffering from fractures. At St. Joseph Hospital, three victims were listed in critical condition and one in serious condition, officials said.

Officials said the accident will be the focus of an investigation led by the campus police. The collapse of the bonfire stack was the second this decade. A collapse in 1994, in which no one was hurt, was blamed on wet ground.

A group calling itself Aggies Against Bonfire has called in the past for the abolition of the annual event, saying it wastes resources and contributes to dozens of injuries and alcohol-related arrests each year.

Patrick Freshwater, a student helping to build the bonfire stack, said the collapse was sudden. “There was just some movement. Five to seven seconds, and it was on the ground.” The noise could be heard a quarter-mile away.

Except for 1963, after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, A&M students have held a football rally around an immense bonfire on the campus every November since 1909, said Tura King, a university spokeswoman. She said students, with volunteer help from construction engineers and heavy-equipment operators, cut the logs in Texas forests, haul them to a field near campus and spend weeks erecting the teepee-shaped pile.