In an incident that dismayed a Texas community and could have ramifications at Dartmouth, a bonfire at Texas A&M University collapsed at 2:20 yesterday morning, crushing at least 11 students to death and injuring 25 others.
While administrators at Dartmouth emphasized that a careful safety review process would be in order before any decisions could be made regarding the College's own Homecoming bonfire tradition, they said that the Texas incident would, at the very least, heighten safety concerns during Homecoming at Dartmouth.
"At an appropriate time, we will try to learn from the accident there," said Dean of the College James Larimore. "But until then it's unclear how it will affect our annual review process."
A committee of students and administrators evaluate the safety of the bonfire each year around this time.
The wood for the bonfire, which arrives at the Dartmouth campus stripped of its bark and processed into a rectangular shape, is ordered in the spring and dries all summer.
The Texas A&M bonfire, however, is built differently from the College's bonfire. Using 7,000 round and unprocessed logs, students there use a center pole to buttress the formation -- making the structure likely to topple if the single center log collapses.
Yesterday's collapse was the second such occurrence in Texas A&M's recent history. In 1994, a partially constructed bonfire fell apart, but was rebuilt and later ignited.
While the Dartmouth structure is only 36 feet in height, the Texas A&M bonfire is designed to be 60 feet. When the structure collapsed yesterday morning, it was two thirds completed.
According to witnesses of the incident, a crane lifting a log hit the stack too hard, reportedly cracking the center pole at the base. Between 60 and 70 students were said to be on the structure at the time.
Students gathered around the site beginning early yesterday morning, watching rescue workers search for bodies in reported disbelief.
The bonfire began in 1909 as a pregame tradition. The bonfire was to have been ignited this year on Thanksgiving, the night before the football game against the University of Texas.
The highly anticipated tradition usually attracts tens of thousands of spectators each year. Since the inception of the bonfire tradition, only once was the annual event cancelled. That was in 1963, in the immediate aftermath of President John F. Kennedy's assassination.
Now, however, to both the praise and consternation of students, faculty, and alumni, Texas A&M's President Ray Bowen has cancelled the pregame fire. He said he remained unsure of the tradition's future.
"It's a very important tradition to us," Bowen told the Associated Press. "But those decisions must be made at a calmer time."
At Texas A&M, students and graduates have expressed their concern that the tradition might die. Others, however, prefer that the size of the bonfire be scaled back, while still others prefer that it be eliminated altogether.
Texas A&M sophomore Diana Estrada told the Associated Press she was about 200 yards away from the bonfire at the time it collapsed.
"It just toppled over, and the wires snapped and the lights started sparking and going on and off," she said. "We ran over there as fast as we could, and we could see legs sticking out and hear people screaming."
Initial reports from Texas A&M said that alcohol was not likely involved in the accident. In fact, a campus rule stipulates that students caught drinking must leave the construction site.
Throughout the bonfire's history, Texas A&M has made an effort to promote safety. Students who wish to participate in the building of the bonfire must take a safety instruction course before being allowed access to the site.
Here at Dartmouth, no safety course is required for participation in building the bonfire. Instead, student volunteers help place pieces of wood in their predetermined spaces while upperclassmen and construction workers stand by.
Participants are required to wear hard hats and gloves, and the number allowed on the structure is limited at any given time.
"I'd say it was pretty safe and controlled," said Alex Streeter '03, a Dartmouth student who helped construct the bonfire this year.
Senior Associate Director of Alumni Relations David Orr, who serves on the safety evaluation committee for the bonfire, reflected on why an accident similar to the one at Texas A&M has not yet occurred at Dartmouth.
"You can hope and pray that nothing like that will happen here. But I think we have tried to do our best for safety reasons," he said.