Texas Tradition May Be a Disaster Waiting to Happen

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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."

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.