Sentiment Behind Rings Left To Honor Bonfire Collapse Victims Resonates 20 Years Later
Like so many after the Aggie Bonfire collapsed, Jeff Whiting struggled to find something to do that would adequately express his sorrow.
The then-senior — who passed the stack hours before it fell — treasured the time he spent during his freshman and sophomore years helping to build the log tower.
That 12 Aggies died doing the same thing was beyond understanding. But what he eventually did to express that grief ended up being comforting to many, and still is remembered 20 years after the tragedy.
He heard the news of the collapse via early morning calls from his mother and the mother of his girlfriend, Ariana Henty, who is now his wife.
“I immediately went to campus and still remember rolling up and seeing multiple helicopters in the air over the polo field and emergency vehicles staged all around. Work was already well underway removing logs,” Whiting said.
As he watched the recovery efforts, he witnessed tributes being left around the site — flowers, 12th Man towels with handwritten notes, stuffed animals, bonfire pots, rosaries and more.
“I only had my backpack because there was a test planned for that day [classes ended up being cancelled],” he said. “So I had a backpack with notebooks in it and that’s it, but I wanted to do something. Then it hit me, and I just pulled out a notebook, flipped to a blank page, wrote a stream of consciousness thought down and found a yet-to-be-claimed spot on the flagpole base.”
It was there at the flagpole before the Jack K. Williams Administration Building – commonly referred to in 1999 as the “systems building” – that Whiting laid the note next to his Aggie Ring.
In his note, Whiting wrote: “To our fallen Aggies. I want you all to wear my Ring today since you who have passed away will never get to experience the joy and happiness I was fortunate enough to feel. I want you all to have my Ring for a while. You will remain in our hearts forever.”
In the coming hours and days, 30 other Aggies followed suit, including his girlfriend, laying their rings down to honor the 27 injured and fallen students. The memorial, which was within site and across the street from the stack, grew to include additional notes and mementos. An honor guard was dispatched to stand watch over the display for a few days and nights.
“The Aggie Rings left at the base of the flagpole at the Jack K. Williams Administration Building created a poignant and moving tribute at a time when it was difficult to put into words what we were all feeling,” said Kathryn Greenwade ’88, vice president of The Association of Former Students. “Much like we answer ‘here’ at Muster, the rings symbolized the bond between Aggies. I think Jeff Whiting’s note left with the first ring describes the intent and emotion best.”
The Anonymous Ring
All of the rings were returned to their owners with the exception of one – a Class of ’83 ring, which was reportedly hung from a cross near the stack by an unidentified man.
“The name inside the ring had been scratched out, preventing us from identifying the owner,” Greenwade said. “We don’t know how or when the name was scratched out, only that it was left at the Bonfire site and found by students working with Dr. Sylvia Grider to collect the tributes left behind.”
The ’83 ring remained with the Bonfire Memorabilia Project until 2009, when then-Texas A&M Archivist David Chapman delivered it to The Association. Today it is on display as part of the Rings of Significance collection at the Clayton W. Williams, Jr. Alumni Center.
“It is a powerful reminder of the devastating loss suffered that day, and also of our Aggie Spirit and unity that comforted us during that time,” Greenwade said.
As Aggies prepare for the 20-year remembrance ceremony at 2:42 a.m. Monday, Whiting said he is reflecting on the day the 11 students and one former student died.
“I know the Bonfire collapse touched every Aggie in that time in much the same way, and that still 20 years on, thinking about it instantly transports me back to that terrible day and tears immediately fill my eyes,” he said.
Whiting, an attorney turned real estate investor, now lives in Austin with his wife and 9-year-old son, Fletcher. He and Ariana also own a downtown Austin home décor store.
“Of note from my involvement in the grieving aftermath is nothing more than how it provided yet another platform for others to display the embodiment of the Aggie spirit when one ring became a collection of rings,” he said. “That to me is much more impactful than any single act.”