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Texas A&M Bonfire Investigation Results to be released tomorrow

Findings from a five-month $1.6 million investigation into the Bonfire collapse are expected to be released Tuesday, delivering long-awaited answers as to what caused Texas A&M University's most coveted tradition to fail.

The report will not provide one of the most frequently asked questions -- what's the future of Aggie Bonfire -- nor will it recommend what, if any, ramifications should follow in the wake of the school's most deadly accident.

The five-member Special Commission on the 1999 Aggie Bonfire has a single charge: Determine what made the tragedy occur.

The panel will meet for the last time starting at 1 p.m. Tuesday at Reed Arena, listening to a detailed report from its chiefs of staff who organized four teams of engineering and other consultants for the inquiry.

The public meeting is certain to draw scores of students and some family members of the 12 Aggies who died while building the six-tiered log tower. Many of the 27 injured also plan to be present as the experts describe what caused the 59-foot structure to come apart in several violent seconds.

The accident put A&M and its traditions under the microscope with questions arising over the administrative oversight at the school's 90-year student-run project, which went largely unsupervised by experts in the construction field.

Up to 5,000 students work on constructing Bonfire from start to finish, an effort administrators and its builders say is a display of how putting trust into students builds leadership, among other skills.

In the past five months, discoveries that some key safety measures might have been ignored and that some students on the stack had been drinking alcohol has prompted heated debate over the tradition's future.

Whether the Bonfire, which draws more than 70,000 people on the night its lit prior to the A&M v. University of Texas football game, will continue is a decision left up to A&M President Ray Bowen.

To make that determination in coming weeks or months, Bowen has said he will draw on input from students, both former and current, as well as the opinions of administrators, regents and families of those affected by the tragedy.

Leo E. Linbeck Jr., a Houston construction executive who is leading the special commission, said the "best people in the world" have been assigned to the investigation and he's certain the report will thorough and without bias.

Donald Powell, chairman of the A&M system board of regents, said he's confident that Tuesday's findings will bring the answers everyone has been waiting for.

"We all want to know what happened, the families especially need to know," Powell said. "The families of those who died and those who were injured are foremost in our minds right now. Our hearts and our minds continue to be with them, and, of course, will be on Tuesday."

He said he will not see the report until the public meeting begins on Tuesday. "We will be learning along with the rest of the Aggie community what happened and why," he said.


Police estimated between 50 and 70 students might have been on or around the four-tiered, 1 million pound structure when it appeared to shift and then collapse, crushing some of its victims to death immediately while trapping scores under the heavy logs.

Rescue workers saved several students within six hours after the fall, working almost 24 hours straight before removing the last log from the pile.

In the following weeks, officers with the University Police Department interviewed 157 students, many of whom shared common theories on why the stack fell. Among a few theories: It was overloaded with heavier logs on the north side, prompting it to collapse toward the south; the logs weren't interlocked enough into the upper stacks to maintain stability; and a half-inch steel cable usually placed around the first and second tiers sat ignored in a pile nearby.

Some thought the centerpole had snapped before the collapse and a few told how a crane hit a cross tie on top of the Bonfire stack several nights before the fatal accident.

A 1990 report by A&M offiicals stated that the Polo Field, which is where Bonfire was moved in 1992 from near the Corps dorms, was poorly suited to accommodate the structure.

The Polo Fields, which is on the east side of campus near the main entrance, was among four potential sites under consideration for relocation. Some students speculated that the unlevel slope might have started Bonfire's demise.
A few believed it was a "freak accident" without explanation.

Documents also show that efforts were underway to build the stack higher than 70 feet, which is 15-feet over the school's height limit. Evidence showed alcohol was consumed at the site, but also was often dealt with by Bonfire leaders who learned of its presence. Hazing allegations made days prior to the accident were under investigation at the time of the collapse.

Three of the 16 red pots -- the eight juniors and eight seniors that make up the top leadership of Bonfire -- made statements to police. Two said a potential cause could have been the slope on the ground while the third did not make a statement.

Efforts by red pots to control problems that seemed to plague Bonfire construction in the past -- such as alcohol, hazing and horse-play -- were lauded by many students in statements to police.

"Red pots had it under control," said Paul "Alex" Jones, who added that supervision was tight and that he couldn't understand what made the logs tumble.


Will Clark and Beth Ridel, students at A&M, are fighting to keep the Bonfire tradition alive.

"We have a petition with close to 6,000 signatures so far," Clark said, adding that the names include students, former students and members of the community, as well as relatives of at least one victim. "We also have 400 e-mails from our site at keepthefireburning@hotmail.com."

In one week the two, plus a few other volunteers, circulated the petition with plans to present it to a student forum still to be announced in which the administration is expected to seek student input about the future of Bonfire.

"Our goal is not to fight the administration," Clark said. "We know Dr. Bowen has a tough decision ahead and we're trying to let the administration know that we're behind them. If they let the tradition continue, we will be there even if it draws criticism."

In the weeks following the accident, those unfamiliar with A&M and its traditions questioned why students would spend hours in the middle of the night building a bonfire.

Clark's response is typical of both former and current students: "It's just hard to put into words. We make friendships for life out at Bonfire. We learn leadership and character. We learn to be something bigger than ourselves. Unless you're out there, you can't convey all the life lessons we've learned."

The report due out Tuesday is expected to provide some more lessons to the tradition-rich school.

Bill Kibler, associate vice president for student affairs at A&M and Bonfire adviser for a decade until 1992, said the timing of the report -- less than two weeks before graduation ceremonies -- wasn't planned. The findings initially were due out March 31, but the deadline was extended to allow for a thorough report.

"In coming weeks, we all will have open ears to the student's concerns," Kibler said. "On Tuesday, we'll all be hoping for clarity though.

"If I have any hopes about the report it would be that the families come away with some closure after learning what happened to their child," Kibler said. "Everyone needs these answers."
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