Breaking Ranks

Will Clark was a reluctant Aggie until 12 people died in last year's Bonfire collapse. Now his desire to keep the tradition alive continues to make him an outsider in College Station.

It wasn't that big of a deal to him. Clark had grown up on a farm, so swinging an ax was nothing new. But he saw how much it meant to the people around him, and it made him feel good. Perhaps he was on his way to becoming a real Aggie after all. The tragedy last year only solidified his change of heart.

"There's really no words for it, explaining why you get sad when somebody you never knew gets killed or hurt, and you'll stop what you're doing and go out of your way to make the family feel better about it even though you've never met them in your life," he says. "I was just speechless to see how much everybody came together and how really amazing this place is, this whole community. It makes you feel like you're living in the most special place in the world."

If Aggies wanted a Bonfire, Clark would supply it -- with or without the university's support.
Deron Neblett
If Aggies wanted a Bonfire, Clark would supply it -- with or without the university's support.
Last year's collapse killed 12 people. Still, Clark believes KTFB can build a safe Bonfire.
JP Beato
Last year's collapse killed 12 people. Still, Clark believes KTFB can build a safe Bonfire.

In the days following the collapse, Aggies did come together, circling the wagons around their school and its traditions. Even the parents of the students who died hit the television news, stoically claiming that their children would have wanted Bonfire to continue. They expressed no anger at the university and were appalled at suggestions that they might consider lawsuits. "That's not the Aggie way," said Janice Kerlee, whose son Tim was the youngest and the last to die, to The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tennessee. "That was my initial reaction: "That stupid Bonfire,' " she said. "But that was grief and anxiety talking. Once you sit back and take a different look at it, you realize, "No, it should continue.' "

Students, alumni, administrators, even George W. Bush agreed. But the rest of the world couldn't believe it: Kids died working on a stupid pile of wood! Bonfire is no noble cause; it's a deathtrap. Aren't you angry at your university for not supervising them or trying to make this campus activity safe?

Aggies have a saying that the media latched onto in their search for answers: "From the outside looking in, you can't understand it. From the inside looking out, you can't explain it." But outsiders ultimately did explain it. The independent special commission appointed to investigate the collapse put it in chillingly academic terms: Aggies suffer from "group think."

In 1972 psychologist Dr. Irving Janis developed a theory that would attempt to explain how the organizational equivalent of tunnel vision causes highly cohesive groups, like military units, to make shockingly disastrous decisions. His theory has been applied to such historical tragedies as the Bay of Pigs crisis and the Challenger explosion. And Performance Improvement International, a company hired by the special commission, used it to explain why A&M did not see the warning signs that Bonfire was getting out of control.

Among PII's findings: The structure was larger and more complex every year, and while students certainly could handle the tepee-style trash piles of the early Bonfires, they were ill-equipped to construct the engineering feat that it had become. Designs and know-how were passed down by word of mouth, and seemingly insignificant modifications were made over time that negatively impacted the strength of the structure. In 1969 Bonfire reached a monstrous 109 feet -- a ten-story building held together by little more than baling wire. In 1994 the top of the stack bent perilously close to the ground, but the failure was attributed to an act of God: heavy rain. Aggies praised the strength of that structure because it took heavy machinery to take the leaning stack apart. But the wooden wedding cake fell faster and faster each year after it was lit, indicating structural weakness; in recent years, burning Bonfires stood for only 30 minutes. Injuries had increased by 80 percent in the three years before the collapse. Hazing and drinking were common at both cut and stack sites. Bonfire was an accident waiting to happen, and the university could have prevented it.

Janis delineated eight symptoms of group think, and in examining interviews with students and administrators, Performance Improvement International found evidence of all of them.

1. The illusion of invulnerability: "Aggies never quit and Aggies have never been beat yet."

2. The inherent morality of the group: "We have been building Bonfire for 90 years; do you think we would have done this for so long if it is unsafe?"

3. Rationalization: "Bonfire has lots of injuries, but we over-report our injuries."

4. Stereotyping of outsiders: "From the outside you can't understand it, and from the inside you can't explain it."

5. Self-censorship: "Always agree with the Bonfire adviser."

6. Direct pressure on dissenters: "Nobody fucks with us, they get fucked with."

7. Mind guards that protect the group from ideas that threaten group assumptions: "Aggies against Bonfire = Aggies against God."

8. The illusion of unanimity: "All good Aggies believe in Bonfire."

Will Clark might have been on his way to becoming a good Aggie, but he was not a group thinker.

A couple of weeks before the commission released its findings in May, Clark thought he smelled something fishy. He had heard the commission had finished its report, but no official word had come down yet. Were they waiting until the students had gone home for the summer to release the report that would end Bonfire? Clark and his roommate Beth Reidel began a petition campaign to show just how many students were "supporting a student-built, student-run Bonfire." With a few friends they started making bumper stickers and T-shirts that said, "Keep the Fire Burning."

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