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Causes of fatal bonfire collapse detailed

SHARE Causes of fatal bonfire collapse detailed

COLLEGE STATION, Texas — The fate of Texas A&M University's hallowed bonfire tradition — marred by last year's collapse that killed 12 students — rests in the hands of school president Ray Bowen.

Bowen said he would decide the fate of the 90-year-old tradition by mid-June after spending Tuesday listening to a special commission detail what caused the fatal collapse on Nov. 18.

The commission, appointed by the university, said flawed construction techniques and a lack of adequate supervision by the university of students assembling the stack contributed to its collapse.

"I have not made up my mind yet," Bowen said after the commission presented its report. "I will try to do what's best for our students, for our university."

The bonfire draws thousands of Aggies to the College Station campus on the eve of A&M's football game against its archrival, the University of Texas.

Many Aggies, including relatives of those who were killed in the collapse, have said they want the tradition to remain. Bowen said he will consult with students, faculty, alumni and family members of those killed before making his decision.

Approximately 1,500 students filled Reed Arena, the A&M basketball stadium, to listen to the panel's findings. The students cheered when positive comments were made about the bonfire and hissed when reporters asked questions that cast a negative light on the tradition or student involvement in creation of the structure.

The 261-page report by a five-member panel cited organizational failures and structural problems as the chief reasons for the accident that also injured 27 students.

The stack of some 7,000 logs was 59 feet high and weighed 2 million pounds.

The commission determined the collapse was caused by excessive stress on the lowest of the bonfire's four wedding-cake-like layers. The stress was accelerated by excessive wedging of logs from the second stack into gaps in the lowest stack.

The lowest stack also had inadequate wiring to hold it together. Steel cables used in recent years were not used in 1999.

A few of the wires used on logs began breaking, support on the southeast side weakened, guy wires snapped, logs fell into gaps and third and fourth-level logs shifted, sending the entire structure to the ground.

The panel also found the logs were standing too vertically, the stack was overbuilt and the ground had a slight slope.

"The physical failure and causal factors were driven by an organizational failure," said Leo Linbeck Jr., the Houston construction executive who headed the panel.

"This failure, which had its roots in decisions and actions by both students and university officials over many years, created an environment in which a complex and dangerous structure was allowed to be built without adequate physical or engineering controls."

The commission said student drinking and horseplay were not direct causes, but were among the problems that led to organizational failure.

Veronica Kastrin Callaghan, a commission member, said students lacked sufficient engineering knowledge to make informed decisions related to the bonfire's design and construction. She also said the university was not proactive enough in solving problems associated with bonfire because of "a cultural bias in which legitimate courses of action outside past experience or contrary to the university's pre-disposition are often not considered."

Linbeck added that a safe bonfire was possible if school officials took precautions, although he did not make a recommendation that the tradition be continued.

Bowen said he accepts the report's findings and takes responsibility for the disaster. The $1.8 million investigation was paid for by the university.

On the Net: Bonfire Commission Web site: www.tamu.edu/bonfire-commission