A golden glow illuminated the Bonfire Memorial’s Spirit Ring as thousands of Texas A&M students, alumni and community members gathered for the annual Bonfire Remembrance Ceremony on the Texas A&M campus early Thursday.
At exactly 2:42 a.m., the time when the collapse occurred on Nov. 18, 1999, the university’s yell leaders began the ceremony with the reading of “The Last Corps Trip.” During the brief ceremony, the names of the 12 Aggies who died in the collapse were called one by one.
Miranda Denise Adams, Class of 2002
Christopher D. Breen, Class of 1996
Michael Stephen Ebanks, Class of 2003
Jeremy Richard Frampton, Class of 1999
Jamie Lynn Hand, Class of 2003
Christopher Lee Heard, Class of 2003
Timothy Doran Kerlee Jr., Class of 2003
Lucas John Kimmel, Class of 2003
Bryan A. McClain, Class of 2002
Chad A. Powell, Class of 2003
Jerry Don Self, Class of 2001
Nathan Scott West, Class of 2002
The crowd at the memorial, both inside the Spirit Ring and surrounding it, illuminated electric candles as they uttered the response, “Here,” after each name was called.
Sandy Peck, who knew some of the families and attended some of the 12 funerals, said attending the ceremony became a tradition for her two decades ago.
“I started coming the first year we had this,” she said. “There was no memorial at the time. I’m here almost every year; I never miss. ... It’s amazing to see the number of students that come out, most of whom weren’t even born when Bonfire collapsed.”
Peck said she remembers getting a call about 2:47 a.m. from her daughter, who had graduated in 1995 but still lived in Bryan-College Station, that the Bonfire stack had collapsed. She said she could only imagine how much worse the phone call was for family members of those involved.
Families touched the etched portraits of their loved ones as they entered the Spirit Ring through the portals at the memorial.
“It is said that if you step into a portal, you are stepping into the life of that Aggie, embodying the spirit of the 12th Man,” one of the yell leaders said from the platform during the ceremony. “As we stand here tonight, we are proof that this spirit is strong, that we will always remember those we lost.”
Peck said the remembrance ceremony is representative of something that can only happen at Texas A&M. Each year, she hears organizers of the event say the ceremony is concluded until 2:42 a.m. Nov. 18 of the following year and she knows where she will be at that time. She also knows what she will wear with a maroon remembrance shirt she only wears on Nov. 18, she said.
“I think it’s a tribute to who we are as Aggies that we continue this and will continue it for years and years to come,” she said. “It’s a privilege to get up in the morning and do this every year.”
The current students may not be able to understand the feeling of walking to the site of the collapse and seeing the yellow caution tape and the tributes being placed along the fence, she said, but they feel it as deeply as those who were there because it is a tradition passed on through generations of Aggies.
Arianna Rodriguez, a freshman at Texas A&M from Rosenberg, said even though she was born after the collapse, she could sense the togetherness of being united as Aggies.
“It became surreal,” she said about witnessing the ceremony.
Fellow freshmen Peyton Allgyer, from Dripping Springs, and Bree Vitek, from Cross Plains, said it was amazing to see the number of people who attended to give strength to the families and to each other, while remembering the lives of those who died.
Dylan Sione, senior and chair of the Texas A&M Traditions Council’s Bonfire Remembrance, said even though he came in knowing a little about Texas A&M and singing the words “We are the Aggies; the Aggies are we,” he did not know the true meaning until he attended his first remembrance ceremony as a freshman.
In the moment he first heard the names called, Sione said he realized they were more than students, but were part of the Aggie family that sets Texas A&M apart from other communities.
“By continuing to honor these 12 Aggies and to support their families and make sure that we never forget them and their sacrifice, I don’t think that there’s a better way that we could embody that saying ‘We are the Aggies; the Aggies are we,’” he said.
As part of Traditions Council, Sione said his goal is to help students realize the importance of the ceremony and the role Bonfire had on campus and connect with both in their own way.
“Unless you come from a family where this is something that you grew up with and grew up knowing, you don’t understand the importance of the 12, but you also don’t understand what Bonfire meant to this campus and the way that it brought people together from every corner of campus,” he said.
Sione described it as an overwhelming experience to witness the ceremony and feel the history and meaning of it. As people cleared the memorial grounds, Sione said he hopes they left with a greater love and understanding of each of the 12 honored and what they meant to the community.
Peck said Aggie Bonfire was about more than the actual burning. It was about the camaraderie and teamwork that took place leading up to the burn and the fathers who come back to work with their sons and daughters.
Throughout the ceremony, yell leaders led the crowd through readings of “The Last Corps Trip” poem and “We Remember Them” and the singing of “The Spirit of Aggieland” and “Amazing Grace” before a solo bagpiper played the hymn.
“The Aggie spirit is a force capable of uniting individuals into something greater than themselves,” one of the yell leaders said. “This same spirit is said to have built Bonfire, a visible representation of the burning passion every Aggie holds within their heart. Though Bonfire does not burn today, the Aggie Spirit burns brightly, a flame that will never be extinguished. The Aggie family comes together now to honor the lives of those who exemplified the spirit so well.”