A&M's administration is moving cautiously on the accident, keeping clear of any language that might imply liability. They realize that after the initial shock wears off, people both parents and students will question the school's level of responsibility for the safety of each of its 43,000 students. So even though, as Gwynne emphasizes, the bonfire construction is far from a haphazard procedure, a faculty member supervises the construction and engineers stop by the site it's human nature to hunger for an explanation for tragedy. And in this case, tradition, no matter how long-standing, may not be enough of an answer for anyone.
Ninety years of die-hard Lone Star tradition came tumbling down early Thursday morning, when 5,000 enormous logs making up the annual Texas A&M bonfire collapsed, killing 12 students and wounding 27 others. The victims were part of a corps of 70 working on the structure that night, taking part in a tradition that TIME Austin correspondent Sam Gwynne calls "sacred:" Erecting the bonfire that's burned on the eve of the hotly contested Texas vs. A&M football game. For people who didn't grow up submerged in Texans' nearly religious pigskin tradition, the idea of a school-sanctioned project that compels students to climb all over a 40-foot structure brings up some elementary questions of accountability. Why are students allowed, and even encouraged, to spend 10 nights each fall building what amounts to a giant campfire, despite the fact that there have been at least two bonfire-related fatalities in past years? The answer is exasperatingly simple: For many Aggies, "building this bonfire is a cornerstone of their college experience," says Gwynne. "This is a core Texas tradition, and it's taken very seriously."