Texas A&M senior Alexis Salisbury shared a common sentiment with many of the thousands gathered on campus before dawn Wednesday to honor 12 strangers.
“Even though we’ve never met these Aggies who have passed, I feel like we know them,” said the Corps of Cadet member serving in Company N-1.
“If you’re an Aggie, you’re a part of the Aggie family, and we don’t forget you when you’re gone.”
2:42 a.m. Nov. 18, 1999: It’s a time and date that resonates not just with family and friends of the 11 students and one former student who were killed when the 59-foot tall bonfire collapsed while under construction. It’s a day that emotionally connects the Aggie community’s past, present and future.
Under starry skies early Wednesday — the 16th anniversary of the tragedy that also injured 27 students — thousands quietly crowded around a memorial built where the 2 million-pound stack of logs crashed to the ground. Though the temperature dipped below 50 degrees, the expected rain never came, and the annual Bonfire Remembrance ceremony unfolded as it does every year — with songs and a roll call for the 12 killed:
• Miranda Denise Adams ’02
• Christopher D. Breen ’96
• Michael Stephen Ebanks ’03
• Jeremy Richard Frampton ’99
• Jamie Lynn Hand ’03
• Christopher Lee Heard ’03
• Timothy Doran Kerlee Jr ’03
• Lucas John Kimmel ’03
• Bryan A. McClain ’02
• Chad A. Powell ’03
• Jerry Don Self ’01
• Nathan Scott West ’02
“This is somber, but I really enjoy seeing Aggies come together so late at night,” said Salisbury, a computer science major.
First-time attendee Steve Johns, a 29-year-old senior engineering student who transferred to A&M this year, said he was impressed by the reverence displayed by fellow students.
Though younger, Johns said he knew Powell and McClain growing up.
“I remember I was distraught just learning the incident had occurred,” Johns said. “It was hard to deal with because it really affected their families and friends.
“I definitely like the ambiance,” he said as his gaze drifted to the center of the memorial where yell leaders prepared to make a few comments. “As you walk down into here, the light really sets the mood.”
Also a first-timer to the solemn event, Emery Jahnsen, a senior business management major, said studying for final exams kept her away in previous years.
“It being my last year at A&M, though, I wanted to get that full taste of what A&M has to offer, including the traditions as well as the meaning behind those traditions,” she said.
Jahnsen said the ceremony has deep meaning for Aggies even 16 years after the tragedy, because the event was something that deeply impacted the university as a whole.
“It’s something that we all remember together,” she said.
Douglas Pils, general manager of student media at Texas A&M, remembers the tragedy from a different perspective. Pils, class of 1992, said he was working as an editor at the Arlington Morning News when he covered the disaster for the newspaper.
“It’s the only day I’ve cried as a journalist,” Pils said.
Pils played an important directional part in the paper’s coverage of that day, as he offered Aggie knowledge and perspective.
“When we found out that someone from Arlington had died in the collapse, it put us into a different gear, and we really dove into the coverage,” he said.
Pils said he’s pleased with how students now handle the off-campus bonfire, which is not sanctioned by the university. He struggles with feeling divided on whether bonfire should return to campus, remembering how much he enjoyed it as a student.
“Part of me wishes they would bring it back, but the other part of me understands the university’s viewpoint on that matter,” he said.
Cody Buczyna, a senior and chair of the Service and Bonfire Remembrance Committee, said it’s an honor to be a part of the annual event.
“It’s very special to me,” he said. “It means so much not just to the students, but also to the families of the 12 people we lost.”
Buczyna said the committee works hard to ensure the wishes of the deceased students’ families are honored in the memorial service, keeping the remembrance reverent and personal, even so many years later.
“It’s a testament to the Aggie spirit that thousands of people who didn’t ever even know these 12 personally will show up at 2:42 a.m. for this,” he said.