Is a Campus Bonfire Subject to Building Codes?

Why the Aggie Bonfire Collapsed

Format
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Craven, Jackie. "Is a Campus Bonfire Subject to Building Codes?" ThoughtCo, Sep. 4, 2016, thoughtco.com/campus-bonfire-subject-to-building-codes-177707. Craven, Jackie. (2016, September 4). Is a Campus Bonfire Subject to Building Codes? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/campus-bonfire-subject-to-building-codes-177707 Craven, Jackie. "Is a Campus Bonfire Subject to Building Codes?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/campus-bonfire-subject-to-building-codes-177707 (accessed October 23, 2017).
Bonfire Memorial at Texas A & M University is made up of 12 portals, each representing a student who died in the tragic collapse
Bonfire Memorial at Texas A & M University has 12 portals for the 12 students who lost their lives building the 1999 Bonfire. Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images Sport Collection/Getty Images

We create Memorial Architecture to remember people and events. In College Station, Texas you'll find the Bonfire Memorial.

In November 1999, twelve students were killed and more than two dozen injured when a 4-story high pyramid of logs collapsed at Texas A&M University. The structure had been assembled for a Thanksgiving-time pep rally and campus bonfire.  Was the collapse due to faulty design or construction?

What regulations should apply to temporary structures?  Should a bonfire be governed by the same building codes as an office building or a bridge? Once again the question What is architecture? was tossed into the mix.

Which Structures Should We Regulate?

Build a house, and you have to get a permit. Build a bridge, a tower, or any large public building, and the plans must be approved by a team of engineers. Builders must arrange for inspections and supervision before beginning projects that involve public safety, health, or welfare. That's the law in the United States and most areas around the globe.

But, what if you're constructing something else? It's as big as a house, but it's not a building. People climb it, but it's not a tower. Years of planning go into its design, but it is only a temporary structure. In fact, it will be destroyed within days after its completion. Is it still architecture?

Should it be governed by the same laws as an office building or a highway overpass? These are the types of questions first year architecture students toss around in classroom debates. But in November 1999, the questions were not merely hypothetical—they became the center of investigations into the fatal collapse of the bonfire structure at Texas A&M.

What is a Bonfire?

During the Middle Ages, a banefyre, or "bone fire," was a large outdoor blaze, probably used as a funeral pyre of cremation. This fire of bones became something different during football season.

At Texas A&M, the term Bonfire, with a capital B, refers to the wooden pyramid structure that students, called Aggies, have built and burned since 1909. The tradition began as an expression of a student's "undying flame of love" for Texas A&M, but morphed into "a burning desire" to win the annual football game against the University of Texas.

The Bonfire that collapsed in the early hours of November 18, 1999  was never set on fire. The accident occurred during the construction process.

Construction of Aggie Bonfire:

Historically, the Aggie Bonfire began as a "teepee" configuration of logs and grew higher and higher by turning to a "wedding cake" layout. The Texas A&M Bonfire usually consisted of 6,000 to 8,000 logs stacked 55 to 60 feet high. 

The 1999 log pile began with a month-long cutting of logs followed by the establishment of a center pole, which arrived onsite October 30 and raised by November 6. Bonfire was designed in concentric circles like a six-tiered wedding cake.

Layers of logs were wired to the 105 foot long center pole, which was buried 14 feet into the ground. Serving as the chief support for the structure, the pole was actually two long telephone poles fused together with glue, bolts, wire, and metal plates.

Constructing the bonfire structure required about 125,000 hours of student labor. Student supervisors were trained by students who had worked on past bonfires, like an apprentice system, instead of relying on engineered blueprints and written specifications. Professional crane operators volunteered to do some of the heavy lifting; and surveying equipment ensured the center pole remained straight and the layers rose to the intended height.

The four-story high log pile was not designed to be used as shelter, although it's traditionally topped with an outhouse.

The Texas A&M Bonfire was not functional but ceremonialIt was built to be burned.

About 18 students oversaw the bonfire project, examining the log pile to make sure it was not lopsided, and enforcing safety measures. About 70 students were on the log pile when it collapsed.

Collapse of the 1999 Bonfire:

The collapse happened during the construction of the fourth tier, at about forty feet. Unlike the collapse of the Twin Towers, which happened from the top down, the Aggie Bonfire fell because of weaknesses at the bottom, in the first tier.

"Two primary factors caused this failure: the first was excessive internal stresses driven primarily by aggressive wedging of second stack logs into the first stack. The second was inadequate containment strength. The wiring used to tie the logs together provided insufficient binding strength. Also, steel cables, which in recent years had been wrapped around the first stack, were not used in 1999, further reducing containment strength. These two factors – excessive internal stresses and weakened containment strength – combined to cause the collapse."—USFA-TR-133

A key question before the Texas State Engineering Board was whether state construction regulations applied to the wooden bonfire structure which collapsed at Texas A&M.

The Texas State Engineering Practice Act did not specifically mention wooden log piles such as the A&M structure. College officials said that the log pile was exempt because it was not a public building and it was constructed by volunteers. After the tragedy, however, members of the state engineering board questioned whether or not a bonfire structure should follow the same regulations as buildings and bridges.

What Others Say:

Is a large structure designed for ceremonial burning architecture? Should the construction abide by the same laws as public buildings?  An informal poll of 320 people suggested that building the Bonfire was:

  • 26% valuable training for future engineers and architects (86 votes)
  • 43% a bit silly, but fun and educational (138 votes)
  • 30% irresponsible and pointless (96 votes)

When asked "Should a building permit be required for temporary structures like the Texas A&M Bonfire log pile?" 69% of 98 respondents said "NO." Further discussion yielded these comments:

  • "Bonfire is engineered and designed to be a stable structure. The Center Pole based design has been in use since 1946, and the spliced center pole has been in use since 1947. These designs have a 50+ year history of safety. They are not simply piles of logs."
  • "I've worked that bonfire - and let me tell you - we all knew it was dangerous! Dangerous as hell!"
  • "...Bonfire has not gotten bigger over the years. It has stayed the same height since 1970 when it was restricted to its current height. The structure has only fallen twice before."
  • "Bonfire is not just a big burning of a bunch of logs. It is a gathering of friends from the present and past and a celebration of life, friendship, and traditions."
  • "Bonfire is a tradition, fine, but why does the bonfire have to be 55-60 feet tall and 45 feet wide?"
  • "The bonfire was not essential for any purpose whatsoever. It was a pep rally stunt."
  • "...It isn't a bonfire, it's Bonfire."
  • "What is the purpose of building a structure that large every year, using what once were 7,000-8,000 tall, beautiful trees, only to burn them in some ritual that supposedly promotes team spirit ? And... is there no concern whatsoever as to what the use of hundreds of gallons of jet fuel poured on the structure to induce burning does to the atmosphere?"
  • "[A&M] is a school that trains people to build things...What do you think the ratio of the students there will go into building houses and many other things and will be injured or killed on the job?"
  • "We live in the Oops Generation in which every tragedy is brushed aside with a crying session in front of school by kids holding hands, parents frantically arranging funerals, school administrators making public statements that the matter will be investigated, and the public going to the next page to read celebrity gossip, and more tragedy and thinking nothing more of it. The only result is an OOPS! attitude."
  • "With the notions of reason, creativity and productivity in mind, What Can Constructively Be Achieved With 125,000 Hours of Human Effort and 7,500 Trees?"
  • "How many homes could be built with that same amount of manpower, energy, knowledge and lumber. If the same resources were used to build a couple of homes for the elderly or poor families with young children, or maybe a structure where teenagers could go for supervised recreation, it wouldn't seem like such a waste."
  • "I say keep the bonfire. Otherwise these AGS would have died for nothing."
  • "An annual Habitat for Humanity building party would instill strong, compassionate values in their spirited, impressionable minds. What does burning 7,000 trees teach?"

Aftermath:

In November 2004, a Bonfire Memorial was dedicated on the site of the collapse. A ceremony of remembrance takes place at the highly symbolic structure every year on the date of the tragedy.

The families of the victims settled for millions of dollars from University administrators, student leaders, and the crane operators. Final settlements were announced in April 2014.

An organization called Student Bonfire continues the Aggie Bonfire tradition off campus. Although not a school-sanctioned activity, the Bonfire experience, both construction and burning, now has some written rules and regulations:

  • all participants must take a training class
  • all logs can be cut in different lengths, but each must touch the ground
  • the center pole must be unspliced with 25% of its length buried
  • four "Windle Sticks" must surround the center pole "to form a framework for Stack"
  • alcohol is prohibited at the building and burning of Bonfire
  • safety equipment, personal protective equipment (PPE), and appropriate clothing are required

One question remains—does your community have rules and permits governing bonfires?

Learn More:

Sources: About Student Bonfire; Executive Summary of the Final Report by the Special Commission on the 1999 Texas A&M Bonfire (May 2, 2000), Appendix F, "Bonfire Collapse Texas A&M University" by U.S. Fire Administration, USFA-TR-133 (PDF), p. 47; About Student Bonfire, Student Bonfire, LLC; Last of lawsuits over A&M bonfire collapse is settled by Sandra Baker, Star-Telegram, May 10, 2014 [accessed August 11, 2015]