By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
These young men and a few young women resemble roughnecks who worked long hours in an oilfield, similar to the lifelike bronze statue that students routinely pass on their way to class. Perhaps they look more like young infantry soldiers depicted in romanticized war movies, exhausted and contemplative after picking up the pieces of a lost battle. They lie on their backs on the browned grass, using their pots as headrests. A few smoke cigarettes, holding the butts between thumb and forefinger, sucking hard to get every last bit of tobacco before flicking it away. Dirt under their fingernails.
Aggies personalize and decorate their pots to add to the color and spectacle of the Bonfire tradition. One young man has written "Seek and Destroy" on his. Another has scribed "Mess with the best. Die like the rest." A young man dressed in camouflage fatigues is crying and leaning his head on the shoulder of an older woman, likely his mother. His pot bears the words "Fuck t.u." (t.u. is the taunting way Aggies refer to the University of Texas.)
Some of the students are wearing Aggie Bonfire T-shirts as a show of support for the tradition in light of the tragedy. One shirt says, "Last Bonfire of the Millennium: Tradition never dies."
To campus strangers, the attitude -- the entire scene -- is not only macabre and bizarre, it's brazen and appalling. But we're on the outside, looking in. And therefore, Aggies say, we can't possibly understand.
Beyond the police tape, thousands of Texas A&M students gradually assemble to witness this rescue site. They arrive on bikes and on foot, full of angst and curiosity. Some gather in groups; others stand apart. Some are praying. Many are crying. One uses the occasion to study from a textbook titled The Human Species.
The media also converges upon College Station. Aggies will have to try to explain themselves yet again.
Adriel Domenech, a junior and graduate of The Woodlands High School north of Houston, knows what the media must be thinking. His father, who lives in Miami, once asked his son, "What do you want to go to that redneck university for?" Domenech thinks his father doesn't understand.
The 20-year-old history and political science major stands alone, watching his fellow students remove the logs from the collapsed stack. He considers whether to head home to grab his pot and join them.
Bonfire, he explains, is a glorious symbol of "every Aggie's burning desire to beat the living hell out of t.u." It's a campus mantra. He explains the different phases of Bonfire and the significance of the colors and adornments of the pots. "I know how all this must sound," he says.
What percentage of students actually participate in Bonfire?
"We're all part of Bonfire whether you help build it or not," Domenech says. "Bonfire is something that brings us together. Even now, after what happened this morning, it is bringing us together."
Like the majority of Aggies, current and former students, Domenech thinks the Bonfire tradition should endure. But when asked why tradition is so sainted to Aggies, he scratches his goatee and ponders the question for a long time.
"That's a tall order to try to have to explain," he says. "I can't really explain it. Some people call it 'the other education.' It's not about school. All the things we do here -- the midnight yell practice, Bonfire, the replanting of trees in the spring -- it all makes you feel a part of a team."
A sea-blue blood-donor van is parked in an open-air plaza outside A&M's Memorial Student Center. A couple hours before nightfall, several hundred students have assembled on the plaza for a prayer service to memorialize their classmates who died in the Bonfire collapse.
Students listen to a choir and a brief sermon. Then they are asked to break into small groups, form a circle, and pray among themselves. A group of 20 clutch hands. Most are wearing identical maroon polo shirts with the logo "Traditions Council" embroidered on the breast. They account for about one quarter of the campus club dedicated to promoting and preserving A&M traditions, traditions such as the one necessitating these prayers.
Head bowed, one of the council members squeezes his eyes shut as tightly as he can in an effort to hold back tears. He sniffles, and when he finally opens his eyes, they are wet and horribly red. Others weep openly. The students take turns praying aloud.
"Thank you, God, for our university, so rich in tradition," Traditions Council member Tania Fongemie says, "and for our friends who died doing what they loved and what we loved to join in doing with them."
Another prayer circle erupts spontaneously into a chorus of "Amazing Grace." As the singing wafts across the plaza, other circles join in. The Traditions Council member who has tried so hard to hold back his tears stops trying. When the memorial service is over, Fongemie tries to explain the inexplicable to someone who isn't an Aggie and therefore cannot possibly understand.