COLLEGE STATION, Texas (KETK) – November 18 began as an overnight shift to finish stack [bonfire] before the annual Aggie-Texas game until 2:42 a.m. when the center pole snapped and the bonfire collapsed leaving multiple students fearing for their lives as they were trapped under thousands of logs.
As an Aggie, that night will never be forgotten as the collapse claimed 12 lives and injured 27 others.
What started off as a trash fire in 1909 soon grew to be one of the biggest traditions in Texas A&M history. Over the past 110 years, the annual bonfire failed to burn only twice. Once in 1963 when it was taken down in honor of President Kennedy who was assassinated and again in 1999 when 12 student’s lives were lost.
“Bonfire was, it was just what you did,” said Scott Jarvis, Class of 2000. “It was just a really unique way of bringing the student body together in that you were working and sweating right alongside people from all walks of life.”
It was shortly after 2:42 a.m. when EMS received multiple calls and arrived on the scene to assess the area and realized the collapse was more than just a fallen log.
“Running down, had his bonfire pot in hand and I called him over and I asked him ‘What in the world is going on?’ and he said ‘Sir bonfire just fell,'” said Jarvis. “Those are words that just resonate in me to this day.”
A freshman at the time, John Comstock, planned to stay inside and study until friends encouraged him to join them in building the bonfire.
“I didn’t plan on going out but my crew chiefs came to my door and really wanted me to go out since I hadn’t missed any of the events,” said Comstock. “And so I said I would just go out for a few hours then come back.”
When asked about the experience right before the collapse, Comstock said he knew the minute the bonfire shook it was not stable.
“The structure swayed just ever so slightly and the whole thing started to go down,” said Comstock. “As it started to go down you could just hear the center pole creaking and then eventually when it snapped it was just like a giant sonic boom.”
Comstock was trapped for seven hours under thousands of logs as crews worked around him to get other survivors out until they were able to pull him to safety.
“When they finally pulled me out and were strapping me onto the gurney, I didn’t realize that a large crowd has amassed outside the structure,” said Comstock. “He said go ahead and give them a thumbs up to let everybody know you are okay and then there was just this huge cheer from the crowd.”
While Comstock suffered injuries, other students lost their lives. Jamie Hand, a 1999 graduate of Henderson High school was one of the 12 people killed.
“The very fact that she was taken from us as 19, she will always be 19,” said Neva Hand, mother of Jamie. “When you lose a child you become part of a club that you didn’t want to join.”
During the weeks to follow, many Aggies knew that 12 students had lost their lives but were concerned while several others stayed in the hospital with extensive injuries.
“In those days and weeks that would follow, the atmosphere on campus was quiet,” said Jarvis. “Desperate not knowing what we could do, not knowing what would happen next, not knowing how many would end up being killed, didn’t know how to feel, it really overwhelmed the entire student body.”
Following the collapse, several memorials were held in honor of the twelve who died including a dove release and a special tribute by the Texas Longhorn band during the halftime performance of their annual Thanksgiving game.
After being taken to the hospital, Comstock was immediately taken into surgery where he says he didn’t remember anything until he woke up six weeks later after New Years.
Comstock suffered extensive injuries including swelling, nerve damage, paralysis, and a left leg amputation. He stayed in rehab until spring 2000 and later moved back to Dallas where his mother became his sole caretaker. Comstock went back to A&M in late 2000 where he finished his degree and graduated in 2010.
“That was one of the things they [Texas A&M University] asked me from the beginning was what did I want,” said Comstock. “I wanted to move back to A&M and live in the same dorm and they said they would make that possible.”
Neva Hand has other daughters and a granddaughter named after Jamie who are reminded of her kind spirit and love of A&M. She says Jamie is with God and that everything their family does, she is right there beside them.
“I know where Jamie is, we’re Christians, she was a Christian,” said Hand. “And I feel like that when we talk, when we have anything going on, that she is a part of it.”
In 2004, a memorial was built in the exact location of the collapse to honor the 12 lives that were lost. Walking up the path, the History Walk symbolizes every time bonfire was burned except for 1963 when Kennedy was assassinated.
The Spirit Ring at the end of the path represents bonfire with metal markers that represent the 27 injured and portals that represent the 12 injured. Each portal faces the hometown of the victim and has quotes, their signature, and a portrait.
Every year on November 18, at 2:42 a.m. students and people from across Bryan-College Station gather at the memorial site to honor the 12 Aggies who were lost in 1999.
After the 1999 collapse, the bonfire was not built until 2002 when students organized the build off-campus where it continues every year until this day.
Learn more about the bonfire memorial HERE.
For a list of the fallen, click HERE.
Videos courtesy of Texas A&M and NBC.