Breaking Ranks

It was about two-thirty in the morning on November 18, less than a week before the 1999 Aggie Bonfire was to burn. The 60-some students of the midnight-to-6 a.m. shift were already wiring long logs onto the upper levels of a 59-foot monument to Aggie pride. Some were dangling on swings high in the air; some were standing atop the Bonfire's four tall tiers; others walked the perimeter supervising the massive effort.

They worked with a knowledge that had been passed down from student to student over the last 90 years. They worked with such aggression that they had wedged the second-tier logs into the first tier more forcefully than ever before. They worked with such zeal that they had overloaded the southeast side of the second level. They worked with such confidence that they hadn't seen the need for steel cables around the base of the stack.

Without warning, the Aggie Bonfire experienced what a special commission would later call a containment failure. Students heard a loud cracking noise and felt a rumbling within the stack under their feet. The first-tier logs on the southeast side began to break free from their wiring and fall out toward the ground. Second-tier logs shifted in the same direction and fell into the gaps being created below them. The third and fourth tiers followed suit. The center pole snapped in three places.

Some students tried to jump away from the crashing structure; others grabbed onto logs and hoped to ride them to the ground. But those on the southeast side didn't have a chance. Within seven seconds, more than a million pounds of lumber cascaded over them. Twelve were killed, and 27 were injured.

Will Clark was home in bed.

He hadn't been one of the 5,000 students who worked on Bonfire that year. He hadn't even been out to the construction site except for an appearance at a perimeter-pole party the week before. In fact, he had never been particularly into Bonfire at all. Will Clark calls himself a two-percenter, derogatory Aggie-speak for the miniscule number of students who are not wholeheartedly involved in the maintenance of A&M's all-important traditions.

Little did this two-percenter know as he slept that fateful night that, in the next year, he would become the most vehement advocate for A&M's sacred stack of logs. Little did he know that his quest to uphold an Aggie tradition would make him even more of an outsider than he already was.

Will Clark missed his first Bonfire, his freshman Bonfire, the one that makes true Aggies out of A&M students. It's an indoctrination of sorts. Freshmen make up the bulk of the Bonfire workforce, spending their first fall weekends in the woods, cutting down thousands of trees, loading them onto flatbeds, chanting, play-fighting in the mud and generally reveling in the sweaty physicality of hard labor. As the semester progresses, they begin to see their efforts take the shape of a giant wooden wedding cake on A&M's polo fields. By the time Bonfire burns on Thanksgiving evening in what is essentially an enormous pep rally before the football game against rival University of Texas, friendships are solidified, and so is the Aggie way of life.

In Bonfire, students learn more than how to use axes and machetes and lift logs in a group with military precision. They learn that A&M football games are like battles, and that they must stand and be ready to fight for the honor of their school. They learn that they are special, a part of something bigger than themselves. They learn that they are family, and that the president of the university is both a loving patriarch and a fearless leader. They learn that they too are leaders and can do anything they set out to accomplish. They learn that when they die, their names will be read at an annual gathering of Aggies around the world. They learn that as Aggies they will never be forgotten. It's heady stuff.

But Clark spent the fall semester of his freshman year at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos. He had wanted to go to A&M, but his girlfriend's parents didn't want them to go to the same school. Clark and his girlfriend had dated for five years, and it was hard for him to be away from her -- especially when she wanted to spend weekends working on Bonfire instead of hanging out with him. When they talked on the phone, her conversation was peppered with red pots, yellow pots, brown pots and butt pots. He didn't understand the references to the hierarchy of Bonfire student leaders. Clark hated Bonfire. He hated A&M. But when she asked him to join her in College Station the next semester, he did. Their reunion was short-lived, however. She soon dumped him for a Bonfire leader.

Clark set about becoming a two-percenter. He went to class, to work, to football games and to the occasional yell practice. He made friends and met another girl. She talked him into piercing his ear and getting a motorcycle -- not your typical Aggie accessories. And yes, he worked on Bonfire a little. He might not have had much choice: His dorm, Crocker Hall, was known for sending threatening letters to nonparticipants.

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."

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."

The report hit A&M students hard. After all, it indicted their entire culture. On the day of its release, Clark met a friend from his dorm at the site of the collapse. "This guy, a tough guy, you'd never see him emotional at all," Clark recalls. "And he's just in tears saying how everything he'd ever done was for nothing, that it would never go on. And I said, "Somehow, someway, I was gonna' It was gonna be my way of giving back here to all these people. It was gonna go on somehow."

Clark kept working on the petition. He received e-mails from alumni all over the country, recounting their own poignant Bonfire stories: how they met their husbands or wives working on the stack, how they wouldn't trade the experience for anything in the world. The Bryan-College Station Eagle ran a heartwarming photo of a five-year-old in a knee-length "Keep the Fire Burning" T-shirt printing his name on Clark's petition. Aggies may not have known Clark, but they respected him. He was supporting Bonfire, and he was giving them a united voice. Even the administration was unfazed by the movement; a spokesperson indicated that it was only natural for A&M students to join together in support of the university and its traditions. In just a few months Clark gathered 12,000 signatures.

But on June 16, A&M President Ray Bowen announced his decision on the future of Bonfire. It was a compromise: Bonfire would continue but only after two years of review and restructuring. In 2002 Bonfire would revert to the smaller tepee-style structure of its early incarnations. Students would no longer chop down trees for the event; lumber would be shipped in. Professional engineers would oversee both design and construction. Construction time would be limited to two weeks. Far fewer students would be allowed to participate. Drinking and hazing would not be tolerated. Certainly it would take time to redesign a 90-year-old student tradition. But there was an unstated benefit to the moratorium: By 2002 troublesome Bonfire leadership will have graduated.

Aggies were disappointed that they would have to wait two years to see Bonfire burn again, but they closed ranks around their leader. Group think was at work. Students publicly admired Bowen's professionalism in making a difficult decision. Parents of the Bonfire victims said the president deserved the full support and respect of all Aggies. The football coach noted that this was yet another opportunity to "demonstrate how special the loyalty is that Aggies hold for one another and Texas A&M."

Even within this illusion of unanimity, however, there were some dissenters. Clark, who had become known as a Bonfire supporter from his petition campaign, began receiving e-mails from students and alumni. Do something, they pleaded.

"You look at these people in the eye and tell them no?" he asks. "I couldn't do it." He and Reidel sat down one night and mapped out what they might need to build a Bonfire without the university. He had little experience, so the ideas were basic: an engineer, workers, lumber, land, money. Some of the e-mails were from attorneys and engineers offering their services. It just might work.

It looks like a typical dorm room. The mattresses are hoisted up on a makeshift loft, creating just enough room underneath for a couch and a desk. There's a mini-fridge in the corner, a Britney Spears poster on the ceiling, shouting in the hallway. The seven young men inside could have been crowded around a keg, but instead they're talking intently about public relations, work schedules, safety training and liability issues. The oldest among them wears Wranglers and boots and spits tobacco-colored saliva into a cup.

Will Clark has formed an uneasy alliance with these boys of Walton Hall, one of the most "spirited" dorms on campus. They were selected to be Bonfire leaders this year before the event was canceled. If he is the brains of this operation, they are the brawn. But Clark needs them for more than their craftsmanship; he needs them for their credibility. If he were one of them instead of an unknown, he realizes, he might get more support for his cause. "I'm like the last leadership-type person," he says. "I'm the last person in the world people want to follow."

Still, he is the guy who gets stuff done. By this meeting in October, Keep the Fire Burning has gotten a lot accomplished. It is now a fully incorporated nonprofit organization with a student board. They have set the event date for November 22. Brazos County landowners have donated property for both cut and stack sites. Alumni have donated funds and some equipment. A risk-management company in Houston has helped the group lower its insurance premium. A private security company has agreed to prevent hazing and drinking on the site. Professional engineers have approved the design.

In fact, Keep the Fire Burning's plan is, in many ways, similar to the one advocated by Bowen for 2002. The center pole will be 60 feet tall but buried 20 feet in the ground, making the stack significantly shorter than those of the recent past. Four other base poles also will be buried for support. The structure will be built in the shape of a tepee, with all logs touching the ground. The tiered effect that A&M students are used to will be created simply by using various lengths of log. Pulleys and bucket cranes will prevent the need for students to be on the stack, even though both systems are mostly extra precautions. Clark says that the engineers who approved the design told him that it had no theoretical "hoop stress," the outward force that caused last year's first-tier logs to collapse. "It's just gonna burn," they told him. "It's not gonna fall. It's gonna stand there until it turns to ashes."

Keep the Fire Burning is making it a point to maintain student involvement in the felling of trees -- something the administration wants to eliminate because it is so dangerous. To minimize risks, Clark says, chain-saw operators will be trained by industry professionals. And they will wear Kevlar chaps, steel-toed boots, safety goggles and helmets.

"If we can make it safe," he says, "then what's wrong with it? What's wrong with some students going out and burning some wood in the country somewhere? It's not really that big a deal. It doesn't have to be a holy war."

To put it in the terms of A&M's military history, Clark was like a soldier who stayed in his foxhole, fighting bravely on after his commander has called for a retreat. He was bound to get shelled. What he didn't realize is that the mortars would be coming from his own ranks. The one thing more important to Aggies than Bonfire is obedience.

Students wrote letters to The Battalion, A&M's student newspaper, condemning Keep the Fire Burning. Others asked that their names be removed from Clark's petition. Last year's Bonfire leaders announced to the Eagle that they felt KTFB was hurting the parents of those who died. Janice and Tim Kerlee Sr. held an open meeting on campus where they pleaded with the organization to abandon its misguided efforts. "Unity is the Aggie spirit," Kerlee Sr. said. "If this Bonfire, off-campus, goes off this year, it will do more harm to this university in the eyes of this country among non-Aggies than anything we could do." The student senate passed a resolution commending Bowen's decision and strongly discouraging any "student initiatives not in 100 percent accordance with Texas A&M University's official Bonfire position, including construction of or participation in any outside activities that could endanger the lives of present or future Aggies or in any way damage Aggie Unity."

Clark was flabbergasted. These people had wanted a Bonfire, and he was giving them a Bonfire. "We never expected opposition from the campus at all," he says. "So it was never our goal to be rebels or outcasts or anything like that."

The administration applied a more direct form of pressure to the group. Clark claims the school warned participants of impending disciplinary action and threatened to remove board members from hall councils and campus jobs. "That's illegal discrimination," Clark says. "They knew that they're a big enough organization that they can blur the lines of the law, and they've done it for years. When you'd call them on something, they'd back off, but they just kept continually doing it, giving us small battles to fight that just bogged us down a lot."

The battles were waged off-campus as well. KTFB members say that local business owners were discouraged from selling them chain saws and other materials. They also say that administrators asked the Texas Board of Professional Engineers to crack down on the group by seeking a court injunction against the off-campus Bonfire. Last month KTFB was selling T-shirts at a Shell gas station on a corner near campus. The owner had given the students permission to be there, but one day before a home football game, he asked them to leave. Clark says that the university, which buys a lot of fuel from Shell, had called the distributor and threatened to sever ties to the company if it continued to allow Keep the Fire Burning to operate at its station. The distributor, in turn, called the station owner and threatened to stop selling him gas. "He was like, "Well, as much as I like having you here, without gas I don't run a station,' " Clark recalls. KTFB packed up its T-shirts.

Cynthia Lawson, executive director of university relations, denies all the allegations. "These are not the type of activities that the university would engage in," she adds. While the university has done what it can do to discourage students from building an off-campus Bonfire, Lawson says, the school's approach has been to meet with KTFB members to repeatedly urge them to respect Bowen's decision to postpone the event for two years.

In any case, Will Clark is spooked. He refuses to reveal the names of the engineers helping him on the Bonfire. He doesn't even want to reveal his area of study to the media. There are seven Will Clarks at A&M, he says, and the university distinguishes them by their majors. He worries about pressure coming from within his department or from his academic advisers. His roommate Reidel doesn't talk to the press at all. Though she graduated last year, she still works for the university as a lab researcher and fears retribution for her involvement with Keep the Fire Burning.

Instead of bringing Clark and his group back into the fold, the university further alienated them. "I disagree with immoral-type leadership like that," he says, in the equivalent of Aggie sacrilege. "They're not the quality of person that I want in charge of this university, special as it is to me."

Clark is much less secretive sitting at a picnic table behind the Dixie Chicken at the end of October. It's all over now. The majority has prevailed. Bonfire will not be built or burned this year.

Keep the Fire Burning has not bowed to university pressure. The organizers simply have run into logistical problems. The insurance underwriting didn't come through as quickly as they had hoped it would. As a result, their first cut weekend was postponed, and the members spent the past week butting heads over whether they should continue the project at a rushed pace. Safety, they had always maintained, was their first priority, and they wrestled with hypothetical situations.

What if a tractor breaks and we're two days before Burn? they asked. Would we actually take the time to fix it right, or would we break out the baling wire and try to get it running just long enough to get what we need done? They admitted that in the time crunch they probably would opt for the quick fix. "That's something we want to avoid," Clark says, "especially with all the world watching what we're doing. Being a critical step into possibly changing the future of Bonfire, we want to do it right when we do it....If that means swallowing some pride and waiting another year, then..."

It was hard to let go. Clark is still wearing a "Keep the Fire Burning" T-shirt and a gold KTFB pin in his baseball cap. He's using his key to etch KTFB's plans for Bonfire into the soft wood of the table. In this project, he has found the Bonfire bonding he missed as a freshman.

"I wouldn't trade the experience for anything, even though we didn't make it this year," he says. "I've made friends through this that I'll probably never lose. That's basically what the root of it all is anyway: just making friends. Some people argue that it's all about the Aggie spirit and all this other mumbo jumbo, trying to turn it into this religious experience. But it really is just about a chance to go out where everybody's on the same level and make great friends and have a good time."

Keep the Fire Burning has not yet decided what to do with the money they raised. There are still some bills to pay, but when those are settled, they will look into their options. If the university has not taken care of all the medical bills of the victims' families, then the money will go to them. Otherwise, they might contribute to the scholarship funds set up in the names of those who died last year. Or maybe they'll set up their own scholarship fund. Then again, Will Clark is no quitter. KTFB could save the money for next year's attempt to give Aggies an alternative to the university's mandates -- whether they want one or not.

"Around here, they don't have a history of questioning leadership.Well, that's what got us here -- not speaking up for yourself when you see problems," Clark says. "I don't want to see that happen again. I don't want to see valid objections raised just to be ignored." It strikes him that maybe this whole ordeal is about more than just building a Bonfire. "This is the first time I've ever spoken up or spoken out about anything," Clark says. You can bet it won't be the last.


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