The logs are still here, thousands of them lying neatly in piles, the piles arranged in rows across the field where disaster struck. A month after the Texas A&M University bonfire collapse, the dead are properly interred and the living have gone on with life. Only the logs remain, like a scar.
They remind all here of Nov. 18, the darkest morning in A&M history, when an annual tradition turned to tragedy. As students and others labored to build a huge bonfire stack for a pep rally, the towering structure came crashing down, killing 11 students and a recent graduate. For 23 hours, rescuers struggled to extricate the dead and injured from an immense jumble of pared tree limbs and trunks.
Now an independent commission is beginning its investigation of the collapse amid indications that this year's bonfire stack violated safety rules. The tons of disentangled logs, carefully set aside, could yield clues, officials said.
"They have to stay put," said Bill Kibler, A&M's associate vice president for student affairs. As awful as the logs are to look at, he said, "the commission may have need to examine them. They'll stay untouched until the investigation is over."
The university's willingness to endure a constant reminder of the catastrophe while the inquiry proceeds illustrates its determination to learn exactly what went wrong at the bonfire field and why, Kibler said. The commission's five members, none of whom has ties to A&M, have met once, on Dec. 3, and plan to meet regularly beginning next month. They will examine reams of bonfire-related documents given to them by A&M, many of which were made public last week, including some that contradict public statements by university officials in the hours after the disaster.
For example, officials said on Nov. 18 that the stack--limited to a height of 55 feet by A&M safety rules--was 40 feet high, or about two-thirds done, when it fell. But A&M engineering professor John Weese, who interviewed student workers after the collapse, wrote in a Dec. 9 memo that the stack was 59 feet high--four feet above the limit--when the disaster occurred, and would have been 75 feet high when finished.
University officials also said after the collapse that student bonfire workers adhered to a policy barring alcohol consumption at the site. But at least two of those killed on Nov. 18 were legally intoxicated, according to autopsy reports, and documents given to the inquiry commission show that campus police caught students drinking at the bonfire site in 1998.
Among the A&M documents given to the inquiry panel was a campus police report noting that seven beer bottles, most of them empty, were found near the stack after it came thundering down, trapping many of the dozens of students who had been working on and around it in the predawn hours. But university officials said there was no evidence that drinking contributed to the collapse.
The commission's report, due March 31, will play a key part in A&M's decision about the future of the revered, 90-year-old bonfire tradition. In a statement Wednesday, the university said it would "refrain from commenting on any aspect of the inquiry" until it is finished.
Although some A&M staff members, including engineering professors, serve as project advisers, the work is mostly supervised by upperclassmen with experience from previous years, university officials said. The current design, used since the 1940s, evolved from what was little more than a trash heap ignited by students in 1909. A&M imposed the height limit of 55 feet in 1969. At that size, officials said, the stack usually contains about 7,000 logs.
As Aggies well know, a lot of outsiders, especially beyond Texas, snicker at the culture of A&M, which opened in 1876 as an all-male military school and is now one of the nation's biggest universities, with 43,500 students--including a 2,200-member Corps of Cadets. In parts of the country less conscious of custom and heritage, A&M's dedication to tradition seems amusingly old-fashioned--and in the case of the bonfire, prohibitively risky. The idea that the annual Thanksgiving weekend celebration may resume next year strikes some as incredible.
In Aggieland, however, the vote is in.
"If we were to base our decision on the feedback we've received--from current students, former students, even including the parents and families of the students who were killed or injured--it's absolutely, overwhelmingly in support of continuing the tradition," Kibler said. But he added that "the paramount factor" will be the inquiry's findings, "whether they tell us that changes can be made" to the project's design and its safety and supervision rules "to where we feel comfortable that it's as safe as it should be."
The bonfire represents A&M's "burning desire" to win its annual Thanksgiving weekend football showdown with archrival University of Texas in Austin, 80 miles west of here. The elaborately engineered bonfire stack, when complete, is shaped like a wedding cake, with logs assembled in six tiers around a center pole that is secured in the ground. More than 50,000 people usually gather for the fire, capping weeks of work by a student group, which erects the stack according to a design drafted decades ago and handed down through the years.
Since the catastrophe, which occurred a week before Thanksgiving, A&M engineering professor Loren D. Lutes has criticized the stack design, noting that a now-retired A&M colleague had argued for years that the design was "fatally flawed," the Dallas Morning News reported recently. Lutes outlined the flaws in an e-mail message to A&M President Ray Bowen shortly after the collapse, according to the newspaper, which obtained a copy of the message.
Referring to former professor T.J. "Teddy" Hirsch, who retired in the early 1990s, Lutes told Bowen, "Many structural engineering faculty members are well aware of Teddy's unsuccessful attempt to have the design of the stack altered." He said there was a "general agreement" among A&M engineers that "something [is] wrong with the fundamental arrangement of the stack," causing it to be "unstable."
Lutes, reached at his office last week, declined to discuss the stack design, calling the e-mail note "a personal message from me to the [A&M] president." The head of the inquiry panel, Houston construction executive Leo E. Linbeck Jr., said the commission intends to talk with Lutes, Hirsch and others about their criticisms of the design. But at this early point, with the investigation still in the organization phase, Linbeck said, "we haven't determined if the warnings were well-grounded."
Bowen, the A&M president, chose Linbeck, a former chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, to head the inquiry panel, and Linbeck chose the others: a retired Army general with construction management expertise; a real estate executive with a master's degree in psychiatric social work; a former chancellor of Texas Christian University; and a prominent Austin businessman. Linbeck said their various specialties will be useful in dealing with A&M's administration, interviewing survivors, reviewing how the student bonfire workers were managed and studying the project's engineering techniques.
Most of the inquiry's day-to-day work will be done by outside experts hired and overseen by the panel and its staff assistants, Linbeck said. He said the commission's report will cite "only what caused or contributed to the collapse," and will not include a recommendation on the future of the bonfire tradition.
But Aggies are confident the stack will rise again.
"Oh, gosh, I don't think it'll be lost," said Fred Palmer, Class of '59, a Fort Worth-area veterinarian and past president of A&M's fiercely loyal alumni association. Palmer said he has spoken with scores of fellow Aggies since the collapse and has "yet to encounter even one who thinks it ought to be discontinued."
Like other Aggies, Palmer was schooled in A&M traditions at "Fish Camp," the elaborate freshman orientation program. "It lights a small fire that never seems to go out for most of us," he said. "It's the building of camaraderie, an appreciation for those who've gone before us, who set an example. And I'm talking about stuff that many people today regard as corny. I'm talking about honor, commitment, duty."
He said the bonfire stands for all that.
"It's not just a bonfire," he said. "Some backyard second-guesser said after [the tragedy], 'Well, that's a big price to pay for entertainment.' Well, that totally misses the point. It's symbolic of more things than I can explain."
CAPTION: The Texas A&M football team flag waves last month over a makeshift memorial in College Station where 12 died in the collapse of a bonfire tower built for annual campus pep rally.