Thousands gather to dedicate
new Aggie bonfire memorial

With the sun breaking free from heavy, gray clouds shortly before the start of ceremonies, upwards of 50,000 Aggies and Texas A&M supporters joined together at the site of the tragic 1999 Bonfire collapse to mark the Nov. 18, 2004 dedication of the newly constructed Aggie Bonfire Memorial, five years to the day of the accident in which 12 Aggies were killed and 27 more injured.

“The beauty of these 12 [people], combined with the love and support and caring that has been bestowed on all of us, should convince you that God still has created a beautiful world,” said Jerry Ebanks, father of Michael Stephen Ebanks, who was killed in the collapse.

“Indeed the depth of this love and support has been at once both greatly uplifting and very, very humbling,” Ebanks told a crowd that spanned well beyond the Polo Fields, spilling even into trees as spectators attempted to get a better view of the proceedings. Ranging from babies in strollers to the elderly assisted by walkers, the crowd continued to swell throughout the ceremony.

The massive show of unity was preceded hours earlier by an informal remembrance at 2:42 a.m. — the time of the Bonfire collapse — in which approximately 4,000 members and friends of the Texas A&M family congregated at the memorial site where the poem “We Remember Them” was read before several renditions of “Amazing Grace” broke out among sections of the somber crowd. Both the poem and the hymn harkened back to earlier Bonfire remembrances, including one on the evening of the tragedy five years ago and the other on the first anniversary.

Ebanks, who represented the families of the 12 fallen Aggies, was joined in remarks by Gov. Rick Perry and Texas A&M President Robert M. Gates. Chip Thiel, a Bonfire collapse survivor, Texas A&M University System Regent John D. White and Texas A&M Student Body President Jackson Hildebrand also spoke.

The Texas A&M Bonfire “brought the Aggie family together like nothing else,” Gates said. “Today the Aggie family unites again to dedicate this special place in remembrance and celebration of those lost and injured in the tragedy of five years ago and throughout Bonfire's history.”

Gov. Perry, who worked on the Bonfire while he attended Texas A&M, also shared his thoughts on the Bonfire tradition and said, “I hope a great many come to these grounds and, in the stillness of this place, reflect on the tremendous loss that occurred here that November day, but I hope that they do something more: I hope that as they peer into the portals, they get a glimpse of the soul of Aggieland, a special place of indomitable spirit, of indomitable character, inseparable bonds, enduring goodness and a unique experience.”

“Through the ages, the Aggie Spirit has been radiant in times of triumph and joy and refined during the tragic. It is a spirit that is evident in all times and in all ways,” he said.

Thiel shared his experiences with Bonfire and described the Bonfire as a tradition the deceased Aggies knew and loved. He recalled leaving the stack many times before the collapse with his fellow classmates “tired but proud to be Aggies and united by that fire.”

Presenting the memorial to President Gates, White noted that the memorial is a symbol of something much more important and enduring than the physical Bonfire. It represents, he said, the bond that all members of the Aggie family have with one another.

Hildebrand urged the audience to always live their lives with honor because “our paths must be worthy of their memory,” he said.

Comprised of three main elements — Tradition Plaza, History Walk and Spirit Ring — the Bonfire Memorial honors the lives and dedication of the 12 Aggies killed and 27 injured in the tragic collapse of the 1999 Bonfire. It also celebrates the tradition and history of Texas A&M and the heralded Aggie Spirit. Through its symbolism, the memorial tells the story of that spirit, with its deep sense of belonging, strong ethic of teamwork and leadership and enduring tradition that unites generations of Aggies.

Selected from nearly 200 entries in a year-long international competition coordinated by faculty in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning of Texas A&M's College of Architecture, the memorial design was the unanimous choice of a jury whose members included leading design professionals, family representatives and Texas A&M student, faculty and alumni representatives.

— The End —

January 10, 2005

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