At least 11 students at Texas A&M University were killed early today in the collapse of a 40-foot-high stack of logs that was to have been set ablaze before the school's annual football showdown with rival University of Texas, officials said. Nearly 30 other 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.
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. And an estimated 14,000 people, including former president George Bush, crowded a campus auditorium for an evening memorial service.
"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 had no immediate explanation for the collapse. They 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.
Texas Gov. George W. Bush, in Iowa today campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination, reacted emotionally to the tragedy.
"A lot of people are hurt," Bush said on CNN, a tear on his cheek. "And it's sad. It's tough. And I'm a little emotional about it, because I've got a great attachment to Texas A&M. And my heart goes out to the parents. I just can't imagine what it means to have that happen to them."
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.
"I've never seen anything like this," Freshwater said. "It's something you don't ever want to feel. I went to my class and there was nobody there. The teacher wasn't even there, because no one can go to class while this is going on."
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.
King said students who want to participate in the annual project are required to complete a safety training course. She said construction of the bonfire stack follows a well-established design and is supervised by engineers and experienced students.
"At Texas A&M, we're a large school, but we really are like a family," King said, her voice fading. "This has hit everybody very, very hard."
The stack of logs, more than 100 feet across at its base and intended to be 55 feet high, was to have been erected in six stages around a center pole secured in the ground. In all, about 7,000 logs would have been used. Students working for several weeks, often throughout the night, had completed three of the stages and were working on the fourth, about 40 feet above the ground, when the collapse occurred.
"It's as somber and quiet here as I've ever seen it," said sophomore Joni Amy after visiting the site and saying a prayer this afternoon.
The bonfire, which has been canceled, was to be held the night before Thanksgiving, before A&M's football team, the Aggies, faces the University of Texas Longhorns on the day after Thanksgiving.
Wayne Prescott, a 1969 A&M graduate and now an officer of the Capital City A&M Club, a 2,000-member booster group here, was distraught over the tragedy.
"Since I've been in office, there have been people who come here from the school to solicit contributions for the bonfire every year," Prescott told an Austin television station. "And I know that one of the things they emphasize is their safety record. What happened in this particular incident, I don't know."
CAPTION: Fire department workers help students injured in collapse of 40-foot-high log pyramid at Texas A&M.
CAPTION: Students console one another at site where logs were being piled for traditional bonfire.
CAPTION: Bonfire Logs Collapse, Killing at Least 11 at Texas A&MStudents and rescue workers gather at the base of the collapsed stack of about 4,000 logs during the search for victims in College Station.