20 YEARS LATER: How victims of the Texas A&M bonfire tragedy reflect after losing friends, family

Special Reports

COLLEGE STATION, Texas (KETK) – November marks 20 years since one East Texas woman lost her life in a beloved Aggie tradition.

On November 18, 1999, a stack of over 5,000 logs collapsed on Texas A&M campus as students were building their annual bonfire before the Texas game on Thanksgiving day.

The tragedy claimed the lives of 12 and injured 27 others. One of the victims was Jamie Hand, a Henderson High School graduate in her first semester of college.

Jamie Hand died in the tragedy. It was her first semester at Texas A&M.

“In some ways it seems like a long time, in others it seems like it was just a few weeks ago,” said Neva Hand. “The very fact that she was taken from us at the age of 19, she will always be 19.”

Jamie’s journey started in East Texas where she graduated from Henderson High School as a cheerleader.

“When she stood on the sidelines as a cheerleader in high school, she was always disappointed that people did not want to cheer. It really disappointed her for the fans to be quiet. One of the things she loved about A&M is how involved everyone is,” said Hand.

Jamie started her college career heavily involved with activities including bonfire. She was one of the students building the stack overnight during push week, where they stay up 24/7 to build the bonfire before the annual burn.

When the stack fell at 2:42 a.m., Neva Hand remembers exactly how she heard about it.

“A friend of Jamie’s called us a little after three that morning and said there had been an accident at bonfire site and that Jamie had been hurt,” said Hand.

The family drove down to College Station early that morning but were met with unanswered questions to the status of their daughter.

Hand said they met at the MSC then went through multiple hospitals until they went back to the bonfire site to find out Jamie had been found.

“When they pulled Jamie’s body out at five in the afternoon, they came to us and said she had passed. We were asked if we wanted to see her, and I told the nurse, would you please go and look? I don’t want my family to remember. I don’t want this to be the last thing that they remember about her,” said Hand.

She says she doesn’t regret not seeing Jamie’s body as she wanted to remember her as a vibrant and happy 19-year-old.

Aerial view of the collapse. (November 18, 1999)

A fellow student, John Comstock, was the last survivor pulled out after he was trapped under a pile of logs.

“I was right on the edge. You could see my left hand, that was visible, but the rest of me was covered. They had to get me out last so I was trapped for seven and a half hours,” said Comstock.

Comstock is known as the 13th man after surviving months in the hospital with the A&M student body behind him.

His left leg was amputated and his right hand was severely injured.

“So I don’t have any intrinsics, all the movement comes from the upper arms here. So if I do that, you can see where it all kinda ended right there,” said Comstock.

While Comstock has some disabilities, that doesn’t keep him from driving his own truck and living a happy life with his wife and son.

“I think the hardest part of therapy was the occupational rehab. It was slow. I was trying to get my sock on and learn how to use my left hand. It was a slow process,” Comstock said.

Now that the bonfire memorial has recently been renovated with the gravel being more smooth, Comstock said he is looking forward to going back to honor his classmates.

“It’s been difficult for me to ever visit the memorial on my own because I couldn’t get there will all the thick rocks that they put,” said Comstock. “So, it’s kinda nice for them to pave it or make it a little bit more accessible so I can go visit other than just the anniversary.”

While Comstock is fighting a physical battle every day, Neva hand says losing a child is something no parent should ever have to go through.

“When you lose a child. You become part of a club you did not want to join.”

Neva Hand, Mother of Victim

When asked if bonfire should be brought back to campus, she said the only way she can accept it is if the university can ensure the safety of the students.

“I think the only way it could possibly be on campus would be for A&M be able to ensure the safety of the students who work on it and I don’t think that’s a good possibility,” said Hand.

Students, friends, family, and residents in the Bryan/College Station area will honor the 12 students who passed during the bonfire tragedy on November 18, 1999 by lighting candles at 2:42 a.m. at the memorial site that surrounds the exact location of the collapse on campus.

“The 13th Man” will be screened in Tyler at the Studio Movie Grill Friday, November 15th. Tickets can be purchased here: The 13th Man

The Studio Movie Grill is located at the Cumberland Shopping Center at 8954 South Broadway Avenue, Tyler, Tx 75703.

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