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Funerals Begin for Texas Students

November 21, 1999

COLLEGE STATION, Texas (AP) _ Friends and families began burying their dead Saturday as Texas A&M University struggled to cope with the bonfire collapse that killed 12 people and injured 27.

About 1,000 people attended the funeral service for Nathan Scott West, a 19-year-old sophomore oceanography major who was killed in the Thursday morning accident.

``Why does tragedy happen to good people who are going about doing good for others?″ said the Rev. Mark Young. ``We live in a world that is not always fair. To suggest it was Scott’s time to leave earth is some kind of cruel joke.″

At the end of the service in the Houston suburb of Bellaire, mourners linked arms and sang the Aggie fight song.

Questions have begun to resurface about the safety of the annual bonfire, a venerated tradition on the A&M campus for 90 years.

Texas A&M President Ray Bowen has ordered the formation of a task force of engineers and other experts to look into the disaster ``so we’ll be able to analyze all the facts and make decisions to see this horror never visits our campus again.″

Hospital waiting rooms near the campus were crowded with students offering blood, sympathy and support for the seven people still receiving treatment. Up to 40 students have maintained a 24-hour vigil at St. Joseph Regional Medical Center.

``It has been incredible,″ said Cheryl Davis, mother of hospitalized student William Davis. ``This has been wonderful.″

Two people _ Davis, from Bellaire, and John Comstock of Richardson _ remained in critical condition Saturday, while three were in serious condition: Chad Hutchinson of Houston, J.H. Washam of Dallas and Dominic Braus of Hallettsville.

Lanny Hayes of Monahans and Milton Thiel of Livingston were in fair condition. Twenty students had been treated and released from the hospitals by Saturday.

Hutchinson’s father said his son grew emotional when he regained consciousness Thursday and was told of the loss of life, including three of his friends.

``He shed a few tears,″ Bill Hutchinson said, adding that his son remains committed to the bonfire tradition. ``If they would release him (from the hospital) to build it, he would.″

William Davis and Chad Hutchinson were both crew chiefs who coordinated the student work gangs building the bonfire.

``They are so cautious and careful,″ said Davis’ mother. ``The manuals are passed down. There are years and years of experience.″

Ms. Davis said her son ``is doing great″ despite pelvic and wrist fractures, a lacerated liver and a punctured lung.

The campus was somber on Saturday. This time of the year, it’s normally energized with students coming and going from the bonfire site and getting excited about the football game against rival University of Texas.

``Usually people are saying, `Howdy!′ but today, they are just looking down at the ground. It’s totally un-Aggie,″ said Amber Roach, 18, of Aransas Pass.

Officials have said about 70 people were stacking the logs when the pile gave way. Some students were hurled from the structure; others were trapped in the shifting logs.

Past A&M engineering professors said they tried over the years to warn students that the design of the bonfire contained perilous flaws.

``You put a pine pole in the center and then ... lash all these matchsticks together,″ Swiki Anderson, now a consulting engineer, told the Houston Chronicle. ``It’s an accident that’s been waiting to happen.″

Anderson said he voiced his worries to his department chairman when teaching at A&M in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The bonfire pile is flawed because it consists of a relatively loose bunching of upright logs and because its base is too narrow to hold its looming tower, said A&M professor emeritus Louis Thompson.

``I kept telling them it was dangerous,″ said Thompson, a civil engineer who retired in 1991 after 25 years. ``What’s amazing to me is that it went on as long as it did.″

Other A&M staff have defended the practice as safe and technically sound. Bill Kibler, assistant vice president for student affairs, said he is unaware of any warnings made by engineering faculty over the years.

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