by Melanie Nicholas
1996 Texas A&M Bonfire file photo, photo credit The Eagle newspaper.
Each year around Thanksgiving, I take time to remember the 12 young men and women that died in the tragic Bonfire collapse of 1999. I had been living in College Station for two years, working in communications for Texas A&M University. Those years has been, well, strange. Up until that time, I felt like a foreigner. Because if you don’t grow up an Aggie, there’s a lot you just don’t understand when you arrive in Aggieland. “From the outside looking in, you can’t understand it; and from the inside looking out, you can’t explain it,” the saying goes.
At that time, A&M was its own microcosm. Working hard to balance the new – more women, more international students, more campus and city growth – with the traditions of the past. Traditions included all-male yell leaders, everyone saying “howdy,” jodhpurs and Elephant Walk. I was afraid to step on any grass. It all seemed so hokey and outdated to me. And I really did not get Bonfire and this intense rivalry Aggies had with the University of Texas (or t.u. as everyone called it there). Aggies had been building these crazy bonfires around Thanksgiving since 1909, symbolized their “burning desire to beat the hell outta t.u.” And by the 1990’s, these bonfires were so large that the flames could be seen for miles. It was rumored that the huge stacks of logs that made up the bonfire were doused in rocket fuel before they were set ablaze. After Bonfire, a layer of ash coated every car in town.
Sarah O’Brien Toth with Jeremy Frampton, College Station, Tx.
I had become friends with a couple of the student workers in my office. One of those friends was a young woman named Sarah O’Brien. Sarah is the ultimate Ag. She served in student government, led Fish Camp orientation for incoming students, never met a stranger and was best friends with a California boy named Jeremy Frampton. Jeremy was a member of the Corps of Cadets and worked as a Brown Pot, building the bonfire in 1999. Sarah spent a lot of time explaining cuts and stacks and pots to outsider me. She was extremely proud of Jeremy and the work he and many of their other friends were doing that year. Jeremy was one of the 12 that died when the bonfire collapsed.
So each year about this time, Sarah and Aggies just like her all over the world, remember those they lost that year. They commemorate their too-short lives in stories and photos, prayers, memorials and poems. They #RememberThe12.
What I remember about that day is a little different. As a member of the university’s communications staff, I pitched in to assist the reporters and camera crews that came from all over the world to cover the story as it unfolded. Stationed en masse nearby, we watched first-hand the hundreds of stunned and desperate students, the emergency responders working feverishly, the administrators trying to gather information and answer questions. Mostly, I remember that it was cold, frantic and terrifying. But then, like something out of a movie, the “helpers” began to come. They came from everywhere, in droves. They brought blankets, clothes, food, supplies, prayers. They brought hope. The outpouring of support and love for these children, this community of students that most of the helpers would never know, was beautiful. It was what I think of now as servant work; people being the hands and feet of Christ and doing for others.
We are all called to be servants. But sometimes, it is so hard. This year has been rough, folks. Scary. The news is filed with more and more terrible things. Nuclear threats, school shootings, molestation, rape. My dad died, then my sweet dog Milo. I have friends battling serious illnesses and others that are living in fear about their futures. It is enough to make me sad all the time and afraid all the time. It makes me want to keep my children home, pull the shades and lock the doors.
But oh, oh, oh. Y’all. God did not make us to live in fear. He made us to be courageous in the dark places, strong in the face of terror. He made us to love, he made us to be the helpers. And so I too, #RememberThe12, and I pray for their parents and families and friends. They are not forgotten. When you read about each of these Aggies, you learn about how smart and selfless each of them was. You learn that they could not wait to attend Texas A&M, to be part of the Aggie family that values community and the whole over self. I pray for the helpers who finally made me understand what it is to embody the Aggie Spirit. I thank you for your example. And I pray that as we head into a new year, that I will be a helper, that I remember God’s promise that He will strengthen and help me.
‘Help my buddies first, I’m OK.’ Timothy Kerlee, Jr., the 12th and final Aggie to die during the 1999 Bonfire collapse at Texas A&M.
I want to be more Christlike in the face of adversity, more like 17-year-old Timothy Kerlee Jr. Though Tim was crushed between massive logs in the collapse, he fought against the pain and his fear, pointing out others he could see in the crumpled Bonfire stack before he allowed rescue workers to pull him free. “Help my buddies first, I’m OK.”
Just think about the difference each of us could make if we resisted the temptation to isolate ourselves and used our energy instead to help those we see crumpled in the stack around us. I can think of no better way to #RememberThe12.