The Texas A&M Bonfire Memorial will reopen Monday after a little more than a month of renovations to make the space more accessible to those with mobility limitations.
“It’s our hope that the renovations will make the site much easier to navigate for persons of all abilities, and we hope that people who were not able to visit the site before are now able to do so,” University Art Galleries marketing and communications specialist Molly Painter said.
The key change at the memorial is the placement of new gravel topped with a Klingstone product that maintains the original look while creating a solid layer on which wheelchairs can move more easily. The new walkways will be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Some who had previously had trouble visiting the memorial due to the gravel were survivors of the collapse who were injured, said Brooke Wilson, Bonfire Remembrance and Service Committee chair for Traditions Council. One of those is John Comstock, the last survivor pulled from the stack, who uses a wheelchair because of injuries he sustained while trapped among the fallen logs.
During a visit to Allen Academy in October, he noted his appreciation for the renovations because he visits the memorial every Nov. 18 on the anniversary of the 1999 collapse.
During the renovations that began Aug. 22, the granite and bronze portals and the granite history walk were covered.
“The tragedy of the Bonfire collapse in 1999 affected the campus and the entire Bryan-College Station community, as well as people around the state and the nation,” Painter said. “So many people still hurt and grieve for the 12 Aggies we lost at that site. The memorial is a place to learn about, remember and pay tribute to those Aggies; physical barriers shouldn’t limit anyone from paying their respects.”
The reopening of the memorial was originally scheduled for Friday, but recent rains pushed that date back to Monday when both the memorial site and adjacent parking lot will reopen. The University Art Galleries will host its annual Bonfire Memorial Cleaning event Nov. 7 ahead of the annual Remembrance Ceremony set for 2:42 a.m. Nov. 18 at the memorial.
Other events leading up to the Remembrance Ceremony are a Reflections Display in the Memorial Student Center Flag Room and showings of the documentary Burning Desire, which looks at the days leading up to the collapse, the collapse and then the impact of the “Bonfire Game” played against the University of Texas one week later.
“We ended up winning, and that was kind of a really uniting event that gave the community a lot of hope for the future,” Wilson said of the 1999 football game.
The Reflections Display and Burning Desire showings will begin Nov. 11, and Traditions Council opted to expand both this year to help raise awareness of the Remembrance Ceremony.
The purpose is to let everyone know what the ceremony is about and why it happens, Wilson said, especially because in the 20th anniversary of the collapse, fewer students were old enough in 1999 to know what was happening. Many freshmen and sophomores were not even born yet.
“Most of the students on campus can see themselves in one of them in some way or another,” she said, whether it is through a campus organization or their personality. “I think that being able to connect with them in that way is really powerful. And kind of proves that the Aggie spirit is still around and we’re all a family.”
The ceremony, led by Yell Leaders, at 2:42 a.m. on Nov. 18 at Bonfire Memorial — the time, date and place of the collapse — includes a reading of the poem We Remember Them and singing of The Spirit of Aggieland and Amazing Grace.
“It’s not a super long ceremony, but it’s a very powerful one, and since it doesn’t happen except for once a year, we usually have a pretty large turnout, and it’s pretty impactful,” Wilson said, noting the layout remains largely the same as what was decided upon by the families of the 12 fallen Aggies memorialized at the site.
Wilson called it “the greatest honor” to serve as chair of the committee heading up the Remembrance Ceremony this year.
The tradition of holding student bonfire on campus ended following the collapse, Wilson said, but she and others can learn about the unifying experience from those who did participate.
“It doesn’t matter what your major was, what you were interested in, what your personal beliefs were, everyone kind of came together and was able to build this really, really unique structure and kind of built the Aggie spirit in doing that,” she said.