Texas A&M tragedy an ominous warning

Campus alert: Other schools may feel their traditions are harmless, but so did the Aggies.

November 26, 1999

EVERY college campus in the United States must re-examine the spirit-building traditions and high jinks - bonfires, monument climbs and the like -- that may still seem benign.

At Texas A&M, a monstrous pile of timbers crumbled with dozens of student workers perched on or near it. Twelve were killed and others badly injured.

The proud Texas Aggie family was plunged into mourning, self-examination and, without doubt, a dozen or more lawsuits. Anyone who saw photographs of the crash scene had to be horrified.

Perhaps it is unfair to call it an accident waiting to happen. But warnings had come earlier. Rain-soaked ground was blamed for another collapse in which no one was hurt -- and, it seems fair to say, no lesson learned. Hindsight is 20-20, to be sure.

Other campuses must avoid the temptation to think of this catastrophe as isolated, something that "couldn't happen here." Officials at the Texas university almost certainly assured themselves, if only subconsciously, in the same way.

Apples and oranges, said a spokesman for the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. A bonfire is lighted on Farragut Field prior to the Army-Navy game each year, but that 10-foot pyre was nothing compared to the 40-foot tower of fire constructed in Texas.

The annual Herndon Monument Climb by graduating midshipmen is no more dangerous, the spokesman said. Moreover, since the Naval Academy is used to dealing with the injuries associated with an active, military atmosphere, it always has an ambulance and other professional personnel on hand just in case.

Could a greased Herndon Monument fall with cadets hanging from every centimeter? No one thinks so.

But you can almost bet the statue and event will be examined and re-examined.

Every campus in the country must now do the same. Any student activity with a long history needs even more scrutiny.

The longer it's been around, the less sensitivity there may be to inherent dangers or the dangers that came along without anyone noticing.

And every school should be ready for cries of disapproval from the alumni if something dangerous is discovered.

But in the end, no one else wants the kind of memories that now will haunt the unfortunate Texas Aggies.

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