Impromptu bonfire memoral from 1999 meticulously archived by Texas A&M

Volunteers begin the task of classifying and preserving the artifacts left in memoriam at the bonfire site after the collapse in 1999.

It's been 15 years since Tim Sweeney saw the rings, the letters and other pieces of a spontaneous shrine for the 12 Aggies who died in the collapse of the 1999 bonfire.

"What they left behind made you feel like you were a part of the community that was going through the same thing at the same time," he said. "It was a very terrible but very powerful experience."

Sweeney, who was then and still is the adviser of the Traditions Council, helped collect and document the 5,000 objects left at the bonfire site. And for the last several years he's been trying to get some of the items on display.

Currently, the items -- football tickets, 12th Man towels, rosaries and much more -- sit in more than 300 boxes stored in a temperature-controlled storage facility off Agronomy Road. Each item has been photographed and given a barcode. Some were placed in deep freeze when first collected, others meticulously cleaned for months to remove dirt, mud and mold.

The collection is important not only in the context of the Aggie community, but also in the context of impromptu memorials, said Patricia Clabaugh, an associate director of the Texas A&M University Press and former curator for the department of anthropology. In 2000, she led the documentation of the items with Sylvia Grider, an anthropology professor who has since retired.

Unlike the bonfire's unplanned shrine, many such memorials that spring up after disasters aren't carefully taken apart, documented and stored.

"It's really the only collection," she said. "No collection like that has ever been archived."

In 2006, the collection was brought from the anthropology department to the Cushing Memorial Library and Archives. In recent years, it's been used by researchers and for documentaries, and a few items it has been on display at the Memorial Student Center.

But many of the items have not been displayed since 2000 for a variety of reasons, said university archivist Greg Bailey.

Some items are fragile. Some have mold on them and opening them up could spread the spores and harm other materials. And then there's the question of whose permission is needed for the items to be displayed to the public. "We don't want to put something out there that might offend someone's family," Bailey said. "The people who put it out there, I don't know if they expected this material to be collected and kept."

Despite his concerns, Bailey is working to see if the display Sweeney hopes for could be possible. Next week, the two will meet to discuss a month-long display in one of the art galleries on campus.

Such a display would not only be a homage to the 12 Aggies who died, but also to those who grieved for them in the days after the tragedy, Clabaugh said.

"It was such an emotional time, of course, but what really came through was the spirit of Texas A&M," she said. "Leaving something at a shrine like that, no matter what it is, you're kind of leaving a piece of yourself there, too."

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