Texas tragedy raises concern at Dartmouth

by Jeremy Skog | 10/27/00 5:00am

Colossal and blazing though it may be, Dartmouth's Homecoming Bonfire has traditionally been surrounded by an aura of invulnerability, as evidenced by students' eagerness to help in its construction and run around its burning logs countless times.

That sense of security, however, was partially shattered last year, when a bonfire at Texas A&M University collapsed, killing 12 students and injuring 27 others.

Despite the significant structural differences between Dartmouth's and Texas A&M's bonfires -- theirs, for example, is built around a single center pole, while Dartmouth's is constructed with several tiers -- this year's bonfire was built with the Texas A&M tragedy in mind.

After hearing the news about Texas A&M, Dartmouth's administration was forced to "take a step back and think about our own bonfire," Dean of the College James Larimore said.

As a result, several changes will be implemented this year, including mailings to first-year students advising them on what to expect during Homecoming festivities, construction lights and an increased Safety and Security presence during the fire.

In addition, a construction and engineering firm will supervise the construction process this year, and possibly recommend future changes.

At Texas A&M, the university administration decided to prohibit the building of a homecoming bonfire this year, a move that met spirited resistance and promises by students that they would nonetheless build one off campus to maintain school tradition.

Students, alumni and even parents of the deceased have protested for the bonfire's continuation.

Debate in Texas has focused on the meaning of tradition, with some arguing that safety should come before collegiate customs, and a very vocal group taking the opposite position.

The Texas A&M tragedy made the front pages of newspapers nation-wide, including here at Dartmouth. Last year, The Dartmouth reported that on the very day of the Texas collapse administrators began considering the incident's implications at Dartmouth.

Reports from Texas included graphic descriptions of students trapped inside the collapsed structure. Photographs of tearful classmates were zapped through the Internet and broadcast on televisions across the country.

Significant differences exist between the bonfires at Dartmouth and Texas A&M.

Dartmouth's bonfire was designed in recent decades by a group of Thayer engineering students, and has long been revered as both a safe and, many say, ingenious structure.

The Texas bonfire, on the other hand, was composed of rough-hewn logs that were cabled together and stacked around a center support pole, making the entire structure dependent on the single log. In fact, the accident last year was caused by the snapping of the center pole.

The Dartmouth bonfire, however, is composed of pre-cut rectangular logs that are designed to collapse inward.

And while the A&M structure was planned to be almost 60 feet high, Dartmouth's never exceeds more than 36 feet.