- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 26, 2002

COLLEGE STATION, Texas (AP) Texas A&M; senior Luke Cheatham thought he might not ever see another student bonfire after a 59-foot-high log stack collapsed in 1999, killing 12 persons.

The revered annual ritual was immediately suspended, and in February, A&M's former president, Ray Bowen, decided not to revive the on-campus tradition.

But Sunday night there was nothing but celebration as several thousand people gathered to watch an unsanctioned bonfire 10 miles east of College Station.

"I feel amazed because I know it's back to stay. It's not going out again," said Mr. Cheatham, 21, a spokesman for Unity Project, the group of current and former students behind the off-campus bonfire effort.

The crowd gathered in a rancher's field, with the line of cars and buses waiting to get there stretching eight miles at one point.

"It's an honor to be here, to support my school," said McKinley Todd, a 23-year-old senior. "It's my last year here. I just wanted to see it."

The elaborate lighting ceremony began when a group of about 50 students carried a torch down the sloping field toward the 10-to-15-foot pile of logs. They passed the torch off to Mr. Cheatham and 15 other student leaders in charge of the event.

The crowd reverentially watched as the student leaders circled the log pile three times and then used the torch to light flares. As the flares and the torch were tossed into the pile and the flames ignited, thousands of voices in unison roared their approval.

"Burn bonfire burn" many in the crowd chanted. As the flames intensified, the crowd burst into the Aggie fight song. Students also practiced the cheers they'll yell during the football game against the University of Texas.

The bonfire had been held on the eve of A&M's game against its archrival. The tradition dated back nearly a century.

While several off-campus bonfires have burned since the collapse, Unity Project's members said their effort, with logs and a student-leadership component, most resembles the tradition.

It was expected to burn until sometime yesterday.

The students of Unity Project spent almost $15,000 mostly from loans, credit cards or personal savings to prove to A&M's administration and others that a bonfire can be done safely and that it should not be eliminated.

Robert Gates, A&M's new president, has not said what the bonfire's future will be. University officials have discouraged all off-campus bonfires, citing safety concerns.

Student body President Zac Coventry agreed with the school administration, saying renegade bonfires have no place in Aggie culture.

"Where is the Aggie band? Where are the yell leaders or the Corps of Cadets?" Mr. Coventry told the Austin American-Statesman. "I don't think this is representative of the Aggie spirit."

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