Vanity of the Bonfire

When tradition and death collide in Aggieland, tradition triumphs

"It is an incredible feeling for Aggies to know that if something happened to them and they died, everyone would turn out for them at Silver Taps, and their name would be called out at Muster," she says. "These traditions ensure that Aggies are always going to be remembered."

There will be at least 12 names on the little white card at the foot of the flagpole during this month's Silver Taps. If that doesn't inspire Aggies to reconsider the traditions on their campus, then nothing will.

Tributes to fallen classmates line the Bonfire site at Texas A&M.
Bill Meeks
Tributes to fallen classmates line the Bonfire site at Texas A&M.
Carlton Hereford, left, and Adriel Domenech, right, mourn for their fellow students at a fence surrounding the toppled logs of Bonfire.
Bill Meeks
Carlton Hereford, left, and Adriel Domenech, right, mourn for their fellow students at a fence surrounding the toppled logs of Bonfire.

"I've lost friends before," says the sleep-deprived Corps member David Morefield. As he talks, cranes remove logs from the Bonfire pyramid less carefully and more quickly, signifying that hope of finding more survivors is lost. "What would we be without Bonfire and without our other traditions? We'd be like every other university. What would there be to pride ourselves in?"

Around the rectangular perimeter surrounding the Bonfire collapse, students continue to linger under a starry night sky, some 20 hours after the pyramid fell. Blinding floodlights illuminate the cranes, and onlookers shield their eyes to get a better view.

Standing alone on the opposite side of the staging area for the rescue effort, a young man shivers in his long-sleeved "Bonfire: The Tradition Continues" T-shirt. Night has brought cold, and sophomore Carlton Hereford wears the shirt to show his support of the tradition.

"Bonfire is about unity," says the 19-year-old engineering and business major, who grew up in Austin. "It helps bring us together as a campus community. I definitely think Bonfire should continue. Those guys were out here doing it because they loved it and believed in it. You do it because you love Texas A&M and you want to make something better of it."

Hereford met many of those he now considers his best friends while helping build last year's Bonfire as a freshman. He remembers that the night it was set on fire, he eyed the log that he had helped put in place.

The student vigil continues well past midnight as cranes remove the last of the logs. Adriel Domenech is back, this time with work gloves, work boots, and his roommate's white pot. He is ready to aid in the rescue, but the "swamping" exercise of moving logs is over. So now he just sits. "To watch; to wait," he says.

He won't call it a night until the final log is removed and he knows for certain that no other Aggies are pinned beneath the stack. "When they finish here, they are going to have a bunch of logs," he says. "If they want us to build another Bonfire, I will do it out of respect for the folks who died. I'll be out here every day, every night."

Earlier in the evening he watched CNN, and he didn't like the way its report came across as "here's a bunch of morons on a stack of wood and it fell over," he says. "How offensive. Bonfire is not haphazard. A lot of work goes into it."

Twenty-four hours after the stack fell, a Texas A&M spokeswoman announces to the students still gathered that all that remains where thousands of logs once stood are splinters. No more bodies have been found. The death count stands at 11. (It will increase by one later that afternoon when a critically injured young man dies.) She asks the students to observe a moment of silence and implores them to return to their dorms for the evening.

Domenech overhears a rumor that the Corps' Ross Volunteers are going to mark the end of the vigil with a special Silver Taps. He sets out to find the ceremony.

"Do you need a ride?" a young woman asks him. Although the two have never met before, he accepts this offer from Kristin Hall, a freshman who grew up in a tiny town near Corpus Christi.

When Hall hears him tell of the rumor about Silver Taps, she gets as interested as he is in finding it.

From the outside looking in, this appears to be the perfect time for Hall -- her first semester suddenly jolted by surreal tragedy -- to ask an upperclassman about how their school could have let it happen. Or whether the event should continue. But we, the uninitiated, don't understand the Cult of Aggie.

During the ride, Hall never mentions the collapse. Or the casualty list. Instead, she asks Domenech for tips on how to get involved next year in a 91-year-old tradition.

Hall is only a freshman, but she's on the inside. She's an Aggie, an Aggie excited about becoming part of next year's Bonfire.

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