A&M's question marks Bonfire's future, chance of lawsuits among unresolved issues

Thursday, May 4th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

COLLEGE STATION, Texas - The massive logs lie in neatly stacked piles around the Texas A&M polo field like so many branches bundled on a lawn before being thrown away.

The chest-high piles remind passers-by that, despite a special commission's report this week on the causes of the bonfire collapse, Aggies still have not put the Nov. 18 accident behind them. Twelve were killed and 27 injured.

"A lot of people are just weary of the whole thing," said Mark Passwaters, a senior who contributes opinion pieces to The Battalion, the A&M student newspaper. "It's been a frustrating experience. The commission has come in, but there are still areas of uncertainty that are equally frustrating."

Aggies now know that the 59-foot log tower fell because it was poorly constructed and because A&M's institutional culture long blinded officials to bonfire safety lapses, design flaws and student builders' inadequate technical knowledge.

But there is much they still do not know.

They do not know whether there will ever be another bonfire at A&M. They do not know whether A&M president Ray Bowen will resign, as he has said he might. They do not know whether the families of those killed or injured in the accident will sue the university, or some other entity, seeking damages.

Aggies also do not know what will happen with a Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission investigation into how underage bonfire workers obtained alcohol. Or with a federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigation into training and workplace safety conditions involving professional crane operators at the bonfire.

Officials with both agencies say their inquiries will be completed as soon as this month.

Aggies do not know whether Brazos County District Attorney Bill Turner, who is reviewing the commission's report, will bring criminal charges. He said he is also studying campus police reports before making a final determination.

Dr. Bowen said this week that A&M was considering donating the logs to Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit Christian organization that builds affordable housing for low-income families. A spokeswoman for the group said Wednesday that Habitat officials would have no comment until the arrangements are final.

Next move

As for bonfire's future, Dr. Bowen began holding meetings Wednesday morning, said Cindy Lawson, an A&M spokeswoman. The president has said he will consider the views of experts, students, alumni and administrators before making his decision within six weeks.

Those views may be expressed in telephone conversations, face-to-face meetings or by e-mail, Ms. Lawson said.

"He's trying to make it as expeditious as possible," she said. "There is no leaning at this point one way or the other, to continue or not to continue" the bonfire.

A&M University System regents have expressed "complete confidence" in the decision-making process.

"In the weeks that follow, we will work closely with President Ray Bowen as he takes sufficient time for a thoughtful and intensive review of the commission's findings," chancellor Howard D. Graves said.

Students appear to have made up their minds, however. Even before the commission reported on the cause of the collapse, several dorms picked crew chiefs to help organize and manage workers during the tree-cutting phase of the next bonfire, The Battalion reported.

Ms. Lawson said the university did not sanction such actions, which she called "pointless" because no decision on the future of bonfire has been made.

One of the biggest unknowns is whether anyone will sue now that investigators have completed their work.

State law limits A&M's potential damage payments to a total of $500,000 for each victim, a cap designed to protect public dollars and which may discourage families from filing suit. But state Rep. Ron Wilson, D-Houston, said Wednesday that he is working on a bill that would increase the liability cap.

"What we need to do is raise the level of liability per occurrence. Right now, it's cheaper for a public entity to pay out $500,000 per occurrence than to correct the aberrant behavior," he said.

Suits discouraged

A&M has taken steps to discourage lawsuits. The Association of Former Students gave $10,000 to the family of each victim killed or seriously injured and put out a special edition of Texas Aggie magazine memorializing the students who died. The university also flew dozens of students and administrators to the victims' funerals and even bought each family a copy of the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People.

University officials say A&M took such measures because Aggies regard one another as family and care for one another in hard times. Dr. Bowen declined Tuesday to discuss the question of whether the university or anyone else would accept blame for the accident.

"I understand in our society that blame will be placed," he said. "It's simply something we will not engage in."

Leo E. Linbeck Jr., the Houston construction company executive that Dr. Bowen picked to lead the investigation, said questions of liability did not figure into his commission's work. A&M gave the commission a $2 million budget.

"We didn't consider negligence," Mr. Linbeck said Tuesday. "That's a legal issue we did not consider. We laid out the facts, and those who wish to assign blame are free to do so."

The commission, however, appeared to let off the hook two private entities that legal experts say also could face lawsuits, especially since potential damages from A&M are so limited.

Mr. Linbeck publicly stated that the quality of the wooden center pole supplied by Lufkin Creosoting in Lufkin did not contribute in any way to the bonfire collapse. Nor did a crane operated by H.B. Zachry Construction Co. of San Antonio - which hit the stack a few days before the accident - cause the stack to weaken or fall, the commission said.

The commission also found that no A&M faculty engineer had ever warned administrators that the bonfire structure may have been unstable and unsafe.

Critics have noted that Mr. Linbeck is chairman of Texans for Lawsuit Reform, a group that has successfully lobbied to limit lawsuits in state courts. The group's statewide committee includes Bartell Zachry, head of the San Antonio-based construction company bearing his name.

A Zachry spokeswoman has said the company would not be involved in the investigation. And Mr. Linbeck has rejected the notion that any potential conflict of interest existed, saying his only goal was to find the truth.

Mr. Linbeck was traveling and could not be reached for further comment Wednesday.

The commission also faced questions during its tenure about whether the investigation was as open as Mr. Linbeck pledged it would be.

Public to private

The commission held public meetings on Jan. 4, Jan. 18 and Feb. 22. Then, during the week of March 4, the commission announced - with no public discussion - that it had decided such meetings served no purpose. Commission members said they would next meet publicly on May 2 to release their findings.

A&M lawyers maintained that, as an advisory panel, the commission was not subject to state open meetings laws, although state open records laws did apply to documents that commissioners had.

But the five subcontractor consultants to the commission - the firms that conducted the actual investigation - were not government agencies. So their working papers were not subject to disclosure until they turned over materials to the commission, A&M lawyers said.

Suzy Woodford, executive director of Common Cause of Texas, said the bonfire investigation sets a bad precedent and will encourage other public entities to keep internal investigations as secret as possible.

"It's an outrage," Ms. Woodford said. "Any time public dollars are being spent, the public needs to be there to look in on what's happening."

Such matters are not the focus at A&M now as students and faculty try to move on. Finals begin Friday and continue through Wednesday. Graduation will be May 12 and May 13.

"I think the biggest challenge for many people here was being able to understand what happened," said Forrest Smith, A&M's new student-body president. The release of the report this week, he said, "is the first step in really moving forward. . . . It's been a very difficult experience and a very traumatic one."