Memories Left Behind
Stacked high amid the rows of shelves in a nondescript building off Agronomy Road, hundreds of boxes contain the expressions of a community’s sorrow and shock.
In the weeks after the Aggie Bonfire stack fell on Nov. 18, 1999, the dense shrine of items left by mourners around the security fence was collected from the perimeter site. The letters, silk flowers and 12th Man towels were removed one by one. The mud and grass were brushed away from the stuffed animals that sat outside for several damp November days. The items vulnerable to mold growth were placed in a freezer.
From pots worn by members of the bonfire crew to puddles of candle wax, no object was overlooked. No item too small to be preserved.
Today, the roughly 3,500 items left behind by the crowd of mourners who converged on the site to show solidarity with the 11 students and one alumnus who died are neatly packed away in the cavernous storage room in the Purchasing Building on the Texas A&M University campus. Items are occasionally pulled for viewing at the Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, usually by family members or members of the media around the anniversary of the collapse. But for most of the last decade, the contents of the Bonfire Memorabilia Collection Project boxes have remained packed away in the temperature- and humidity-controlled room.
Robin Hutchison, the collection care coordinator for Cushing Library, is in charge of preserving this collection and the rest of the university’s archives. Twenty years later, she still becomes emotional when discussing the tragedy.
“For those of us who were here, it’s still very real,” Hutchison said. “Every day it does bring back everything.”
The plan to preserve the accumulated mementos formed soon after the collapse. Spearheaded by Sylvia Grider, then an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology and leading expert on spontaneous shrines, a team made up of her colleagues in the department, graduate students and volunteers started the meticulous collection process. Patricia Clabaugh, now associate editor at Texas A&M University Press, was the archaeology curator for the anthropology department in 1999 and helped develop the collection process. Using archaeological methods, Grider’s team collected the memorabilia in 10-meter sections around the orange mesh perimeter fence while visually documenting their process.
Things that had begun to mold were triaged first, she said. The main objective was to work systematically, making sure to note related objects and log the location of the items. Clabaugh said whether she was at the site or in the lab, “everyone’s emotions ran high no matter what they were tasked to do.”
“Everything that was left at the bonfire site was done so in a heartfelt way,” she said. “We didn’t feel like it would be right to pick and choose the ‘best’ stuff. We would sort that out back at the lab. Of course, the Aggie rings and the pots stand out in this collection, but many students and the Aggie community at large would also leave little things, personal items or messages that meant a lot to them. Children even left their special toys as offerings.”
Hutchison said the fresh flowers that were left were composted and spread at the site. Dirt still clings to T-shirts and pairs of grodes, and the ink on some notes has run across the page. But even with visible reminders of weeks left in the elements, the condition of the collected items has remained the same for two decades.
The collection was housed in the anthropology department for about 10 years after the items were catalogued and inventoried before being moved to the Purchasing Building.
“Everybody dealt with it so differently,” said Hutchison, sorting through clear plastic bags containing 12th Man towels, a common item mourners wrote messages on and left behind. “Most people turned to their faith… I think that’s a natural reaction to turn to what brings you comfort.”
Two small gold angels are pinned to one towel. There are numerous pocket Bibles, rosaries, and handwritten prayers.
“Dear God, I’m not sure why this horrible tragedy has occurred,” begins a letter dated Nov. 21, 1999. “I pray that you take care of the 12 who have gone to be with you…”
One box holds several axe handles and a machete. Wire cutters, decorated pots — the helmets worn by the students who constructed the tiered stack of logs — and signed Bonfire T-shirts point to the significance of the tradition. Together with the teddy bears, ribbons, candles and countless other manifestations of the Aggie community’s grief, it all makes up about 258 linear feet in the storage room.
For the people who collected the items from the fence, Clabaugh said the effort allowed them to feel they were doing something to “preserve the collective memory of the bonfire tradition while honoring their fellow Aggies.” The process was an outlet for many, she said, and the students found strength in each other.
“I think the importance of this collection for the university is its historical significance,” Clabaugh said. “The memorabilia brought together a shared Aggie spirit that helps to make sense of this long-standing tradition, even 20 years on.”
For Hutchison, she said it’s an honor to be charged with the care of those memories, as well as the rest of the university’s history.
“It’s important to remember where we came from,” she said.
Media contact: Caitlin Clark, 979-458-8412, firstname.lastname@example.org.