The Aggie Bonfire was one of the longest-running college traditions anywhere in the country. For 90 years, Texas A&M students built a massive bonfire every fall prior to the Texas A&M Aggie football team taking on the University of Texas Longhorns. The annual event symbolized their “burning desire to beat the hell outta t.u.” In 1969, they set a world record for the tallest bonfire ever at 105 feet high.
On November 18, 1999, during construction of the bonfire stack that would be lit the following week for the game, tragedy struck.
Texas A&M Bonfire Collapse
At around 2:30 a.m., the center pole that holds up the stack of logs snapped, and the pile consisting of thousands of logs collapsed. Some 50 people — several Corps of Cadets members, plus current and former students — were on top of the pile when it came crashing down.
There were 27 people injured. Another 12 Texas A&M students were killed.
An estimated 40,000 people attended a vigil to honor the lives lost at what would have been the 90th Bonfire in school history. Former President George H.W. Bush, former First Lady Barbara Bush, and Texas’ Governor at the time, future President George W. Bush, and his wife, Laura, were also in attendance.
The Bonfire Memorial Commission picked up thousands of items left behind at the bonfire site, including more than a dozen Aggie Rings left by seniors who donated them to those students who could not receive theirs. Midnight Yell practice took place as always later that night as Texans from all over the state came together to begin to heal.
On November 25 — one week after the collapse — the entire College Station community watched the single-most emotional college football game ever played at Kyle Field.
Texas vs. Texas A&M: The Bonfire Game
Ranked No. 5 in the country, the Texas Longhorns were heavily favored to win that football game. After Texas took a 16-6 lead into halftime, the Aggies scored 14 unanswered points in the second half. The Longhorns were driving for the win late in the game when Texas quarterback Major Applewhite fumbled after being sacked by defensive back Jay Brooks, and the ball was recovered by A&M linebacker Brian Gamble. Texas A&M held on to upset Texas and win the game, 20-16.
Gamble fell to his knees and pointed towards the heavens in one of the most iconic sports photographs of all time.
Today, the “Student Bonfire” takes place in spirit of its predecessor, but is now an off-campus, unsanctioned event. The annual football game versus Texas may not be on the schedule these days, but you can be damn sure the Fightin’ Aggie spirit lives on.
Texas A&M University’s final home football game of the 2019 season will be on November 16 against South Carolina. It’s been 20 years since the A&M bonfire collapse rocked College Station, and when the Aggies return home from their road game against Georgia the following Saturday, there’s sure to be a massive service on the A&M campus. There will likely be thousands of current and former Aggie family members in attendance as they remember the fallen Aggies lost during the Texas Aggie bonfire tragedy 20 years ago.
Filmmaker Charlie Minn plans to release his documentary, The 13th Man, which includes interviews with John Comstock, who was a freshman helping build the bonfire when it collapsed. He could have been the 13th fatality.