Larry and Neva Hand watch old home videos when their three daughters return to the family home in Henderson each year for the holidays.
The movies contain some of the Hand family’s fondest memories of Jamie Lynn, the third of four daughters, who was killed five years ago when the Texas A&M University Bonfire collapsed.
Jamie is seen on the tapes doing everything she aspired to be. She twirled a cheerleader’s baton at age 5. As a teenager and aspiring artist, she designed elaborate sets for skits she performed with her sisters.
She always was full of energy, said Neva Hand, her mother. Jamie and her sisters created exercise videos, dating games and other comedy spoofs using the family’s camcorder.
“It’s so good to hear Jamie’s voice,” Neva said. “She was such a precious child. She hasn’t been with us for five years, but we think about her all the time. You don’t ever forget.”
The freshman environmental design major was helping fellow students build Bonfire when the 59-foot stack of logs collapsed in the early hours of Nov. 18, 1999, killing her and 11 other Aggies and injuring 27.
Although the Hand family’s love for each other and unwavering faith in God has helped them cope with losing 19-year-old Jamie, daily reminders of her bring fresh tears.
In September, that sense of loss was triggered by an invitation sent to the Hands from A&M for the upcoming dedication of the Bonfire Memorial on the five-year anniversary of the collapse.
A&M asked the Hands to make a list of Jamie’s family and friends so the university could invite them to the event. The list contained more than 200 names, Neva said.
“That should have been her wedding list,” she said. “Everything has changed. All the things you planned for your family, the grandchildren you thought you’d have. I can’t explain it. It’s like someone took something out of you, a part you can’t get back.”
But the family is stronger, Neva said, and has come far toward returning to their normal lives since the day Jamie’s lifeless body was pulled from the crumpled pile of logs
The pain at first was so extreme that Neva broke into tears every hour, she said. It eventually would become every day. As time goes by, she said, “you learn to live with it. You don’t get over it, but you get stronger.”
A sister’s loss
Kristen Smith, the youngest of the four Hand sisters, lost her best friend when Jamie died. The sisters did everything together, she said.
Jamie walked Kristen to class on her first day of school in Henderson. They shared a room for nearly their entire life and confided in each other about everything.
They even got into trouble together, Kristen said. Their father, Larry, once found that his two youngest daughters had created a large hole in the back yard from trying to dig their way to China, Kristen said.
They were so close that Kristen said she lived in denial about Jamie’s death for several months. Kristen, who was a Henderson High School senior when her sister died, often dreamed Jamie would return home.
“I had dreams she was still alive,” Kristen said. “The same dream for two years: Jamie would come back, saying she had been somewhere and that she was sorry she hadn’t called to let anyone know she was OK.”
Jamie and Kristen were two years apart, said Kristen, now a 22-year-old early childhood education major at A&M. That they were so close might be why she dreamed Jamie was alive nearly every night, Kristen said.
“I don’t have that dream anymore,” Kristen said. “But I still have dreams where Jamie’s alive.
“I want to have the dreams my mom has. She sees Jamie in heaven. She touches her. She hugs her.”
Anger and blame
Everyone in the family went through some period of denial. At some point, Neva said, that was replaced by anger, an anger over everything Jamie would never experience — getting married, having babies, growing old.
The Hands are devoutly Christian and decided early on that they would forgive. Besides, there was no place to direct the anger, and remaining bitter would mean that losing Jamie “would’ve taken our lives as well,” Neva said.
“Are you going to get mad at a Bonfire?” Neva said. “It’s an inanimate object. Are you going to get mad at a university? It’s the same thing. The fact we recognized this wasn’t intentional; it helps you move on.”
The Hands were not among the families of Bonfire victims to file wrongful-death lawsuits against A&M. But the family was disappointed with the university, Neva said, because it provided no architectural supervision for the students building Bonfire.
It also hurt that university officials never admitted such an error, Neva said. But she and the rest of her family understood that attorneys who feared lawsuits might have advised A&M officials against accepting the blame.
Jamie loved A&M and Bonfire, Neva said. She wore with pride her “grodes,” the clothing worn by those working on the project. The day she was accepted to A&M was one of the happiest in her life, Neva said.
Dwelling on mistakes would not change the past or bring Jamie back, Neva said. It also would be in opposition to their faith — Christians do not hold grudges, they forgive, Neva said.
“We were angry,” she said. “But we were angry we lost our child. We knew it wasn’t intentional. We knew there were people all over College Station who wish it had never happened.”
The Hand family will travel to College Station on Nov. 18 with mixed feelings about A&M’s $5 million Bonfire Memorial, built on the site where Jamie’s life ended five years before.
The memorial is a touching symbolic tribute to the Aggies who were killed and injured by the collapse, and yet remarkably personal, Kristen said.
Each Aggie who died is remembered with a portal and bronze likeness facing his or her hometown, with writing engraved in the portal.
Jamie’s portal is inscribed with what she wrote on her application to become an A&M Fish Camp counselor for the summer of 2000, just before Kristen was set to start at the university. She described some of the many things she enjoyed in life: “Swimming ... especially in big ponds with wooden stands with hanging ropes to swing off and out onto the water.”
That was something Kristen said she and Jamie did often back home in Henderson.
But the memorial seems at times to be too much of a tribute to the 12 who died, Neva said. Jamie’s death is not much different from those who die unexpectedly in car accidents, her mother reasoned.
One Henderson woman who attended A&M recently was killed when a truck smashed into her vehicle, Neva said. Though her death was just as tragic as Jamie’s, she has not been memorialized.
“I’m not sure of the fairness,” Neva said. “Her parents lost just as much as we did. My daughter was not some kind of hero. It’s not like she gave her life. Their lives were taken by a freak accident, yet they are being memorialized. You have to ask why.”
She has concluded the tradition of Bonfire is mostly what’s being remembered.
A family heals
The Hand family always has been tight-knit. But Jamie’s death has made the three daughters and their parents appreciate one another even more, Neva said.
None of the daughters still lives in Henderson. Shelley Mraz, 35, the oldest, lives in Bakersfield, Calif., with her husband and two children. She’s a certified public accountant.
Melissa Hand, 25, A&M class of 2001, lives in Dallas.
The sisters and parents talk with each other all the time, Neva said, and they’re not afraid to talk about Jamie — she’s part of the family’s history.
“[My daughters] never call me or send an e-mail where they don’t end a conversation by saying, ‘I love you,” Neva said. “Jamie’s death made that, and they know there’s no guarantees.
“When you go through something like this, it makes you aware of the blessings you have.”