HOUSTON – Until Texas A&M University’s 90-year-old bonfire tradition returns to campus, a group of current and former students say they will continue holding the event off-campus.
The ritual was suspended by university officials after the 1999 collapse which killed 12 students.
Last year, Unity Project held its first bonfire, attended by 10,000 people, on a ranch about 10 minutes east of College Station.
While several other bonfires have been held around the state, Unity Project’s effort, organizers said, was the one that tried to adhere as closely as possible to the tradition by incorporating cut _ the gathering of needed trees _ and a student leadership component.
This year, organizers expect to double their attendance. Other changes also are on tap for the event.
The bonfire will be held Saturday night in a wooded area in Bryan, a location that is a little closer to campus and will offer more room for people and parking, said Robert Steinhagen, a 1993 graduate who serves as an adviser to Unity Project, which is not affiliated with A&M.
The structure also will look more like the original bonfire but it will be built based on recommendations made by a university commission that investigated the collapse, he said. The recommendations included having all logs touch the ground and having a professional engineer on site.
Organizers also have secured a $40,000 insurance policy for construction and a nearly $1 million insurance policy for the night of the bonfire.
Unity Project is a nonprofit organization, a designation that has helped in raising funds to pay for the event, which will cost between $50,000 and $55,000, Steinhagen said.
“This year, I feel so much better because we had a great success last year,” Steinhagen said. “This year, the administration is not giving us any strong opposition which is fantastic.”
But A&M officials still oppose off-campus bonfires.
“Safety is our paramount concern,” said university spokesman Lane Stephenson. “So we continue to advise against participation in the construction of any bonfire, even if constructed off-campus. It is certainly not authorized or sanctioned by the university and no one from the institution will participate in any official capacity.”
The bonfire’s return to campus has been unclear following the Nov. 18, 1999 collapse of the 59-foot-high, wedding cake-style stack of more than 5,000 logs while it was under construction. The bonfire has traditionally been held on the eve of A&M’s game against archrival Texas.
An investigation of the accident, which also injured 27 people, blamed generations of administrators and student workers for letting the tradition evolve into a massive, dangerous construction project.
Unity Project organizers said students have received onsite safety training and alcohol, a problem in past bonfires, is forbidden during construction and at the event.
A&M President Robert Gates, who took over last year, has indicated that he will not decide the tradition’s future until all lawsuits associated with the accident are resolved, Stephenson said.
“With cutbacks in state funding, Robert Gates, just like every president, his primary job is to raise money. Once the administration sees the fund-raising potential of bonfire, they will bring it back,” Steinhagen said.