A&M bonfire suspended until 2002

Friday, June 16th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

COLLEGE STATION, Texas – Texas A&M officials are suspending the university bonfire for two years and ordering increased oversight by certified engineers, school president Ray Bowen announced today.

"We do this with this one thought in mind – we had this horror visit this campus," Dr. Bowen said.

He said he would create a task force in September that would be charged with coming forward with a safe plan for a bonfire in 2002. He said the task force should have the plan available in April 2001 so that it will be ready to implement in September 2001 with student leadership that is more diverse and more oriented to safety than in the past.

A final plan is to be in place in January or February 2002 that will be well-defined and committed to a "cultural change" that will increase engineering control and establish a more-professional atmosphere. The site, for instance, will be fenced and monitored with cameras, he said.

"The Aggie spirit is strong," Dr. Bowen said, "and it will react and cause this bonfire to continue for many years."

Dr. Bowen said bonfire construction will be supervised by adult engineering professionals who will instruct students on how the stack should be built.

Massive designs like the 59-foot, six-tier wedding cake stack that collapsed on Nov. 18, killing a dozen people and injuring 27, would not be allowed. Future bonfires will feature a simpler, smaller, single-stack "teepee" structure.

Students would be required to undergo formal bonfire training and would no longer harvest the logs used in the structure. Instead, the university will order the lumber for delivery to the site.

In addition, all-night student building shifts will be discontinued – all work on the bonfire will stop at midnight.

Some relatives of those injured nearly seven months ago during the deadly log stack collapse said Thursday that they were saddened by the university's decision.

"I really was hoping they'd go ahead and do the fire," said Michele Fowler from her home in Norfolk, Va. Her brother, Timothy Kerlee, was the youngest of the 12 people killed in the collapse of the bonfire.

"I guess I know where Dr. Bowen is coming from and, of course, I'm very glad they're going to do it again," she said.

A state agency had already said one important change must occur if the bonfire is to burn again. The Texas Board of Professional Engineers ruled Wednesday that state law requires that the log tower's construction be designed and supervised by a licensed professional engineer.

Board members of the state agency also decided to launch an inquiry into whether state engineering laws were followed and whether A&M faculty engineers ignored their ethical duty to raise concerns about the safety of the bonfire stack.

The board, which licenses engineers and enforces engineering standards, said it was spurred by A&M investigators' finding that the bonfire evolved from a simple trash pile into "a complex and dangerous structure."

A special investigative commission reported May 2 that the student-built bonfire stack collapsed because of poor construction and design practices made possible by a chronic lack of oversight from the university.

In weighing his decision, Dr. Bowen has had to consider the views of alumni and students, who are solidly behind the bonfire, and critics who say it is so dangerous that A&M wouldn't allow it if state law did not protect the school from expensive lawsuits. He also has said he would take into account the victims' families, many of whom have said they would like the bonfire to continue in some form.

A student group called Keep the Fire Burning has gathered thousands of signatures in support of keeping the tradition alive.

Investigators have spoken of the need for a change in Aggie culture as well as changes in construction practices when they released their findings in May.

Within the existing culture, which evolved over decades, A&M officials resisted constructive criticism of the bonfire, failed to establish a safe blueprint for its construction and inadequately dealt with potential dangers such as student misbehavior and drinking, the investigative panel found.

Dr. Bowen, a mechanical engineer by training, said in May that A&M could adjust its culture if needed. He had said in January that he would resign if investigators concluded that poor university oversight led to the collapse. However, he said today that he had reconsidered and would stay as president.

Staff writer Christopher Lee in College Station contributed to this story.

Here's a look at some problems the special commission found with the bonfire and Dr. Bowen's proposed remedies. The quotes are from the commission's report:

• PROBLEM: Poor design. The six-tier, wedding-cake-style structure of felled logs was unstable, investigators found. Pressure from the upper tiers of logs caused logs on the first tier to buckle and give way. "The collapse was the result of a structural failure – a loss of containment strength around the first stack."

REMEDY: The bonfire will follow a more stable, single-tier "teepee" design, which was used in the 1950s. It will be made of lumber delivered to campus rather than logs cut by students.

• PROBLEM: Lack of a formal design. "There was no appropriate design for Bonfire. Instead, important design details were communicated through an oral tradition. As a result, Bonfire was never built the same way twice. ... Changes made in the absence of a sound engineering construct reduced critical margins of structural safety."

REMEDY: Bonfire will follow a formal design crafted and overseen by professional engineers. Students will implement the design when building the structure; they cannot unilaterally alter it.

• PROBLEM: Inflexible Aggie culture. "The University has a culture that instills bias and tunnel vision in decision making. No credible source ever suspected or thought to inquire about structural safety. No one in the administration ever interpreted ongoing behavioral problems as indications that safe Bonfire design and construction was beyond the capabilities of student leaders."

REMEDY: Dr. Bowen promised the culture will change. Bonfire will be suspended until at least 2002 so the university can instill both cultural and physical changes. The bonfire will be overseen by a cadre of professional, adult supervisors who will instruct and tell student leaders how the structure should be built.

• PROBLEM: Student leadership and training inadequate to the task of building bonfire. "Student leaders were the sole design authority for the Bonfire structure. Yet they were not structural engineers and thus did not have the knowledge or skills necessary to identify and correct structural deficiencies of the type that caused the 1999 collapse."

REMEDY: Students will have to undergo formal bonfire training. Moreover, professional engineers will design the structure and supervise its construction, periodically inspecting the bonfire for flaws. All-night student building shifts will end; students will not be allowed to work past midnight.

• PROBLEM: Student misbehavior. Investigators found "considerable evidence of irresponsible behavior in Bonfire. Alcohol use was substantial, although student leaders prohibited alcohol. Also, evidence of hazing and harassment by student workers and student leaders as well as unnecessary horseplay and fighting was significant. ... Texas A&M is unique in allowing this level of irresponsible personal behavior in and around a construction project of this magnitude."

REMEDY: The site will be subject to adult supervision at all times, and the university will crack down on drinking, which is prohibited. Students will no longer travel away from campus to cut logs, which is where much of the hazing, horseplay, drinking and injuries occurred.

SOURCES: Texas A&M University; A&M president Ray Bowen; Final Report, Special Commission on the 1999 Texas A&M Bonfire.