It took a long time for Dominic Braus to feel comfortable talking about what happened on Nov. 18, 1999.
Prior to that day, he was a bright 18 year-old freshman, enjoying his first weeks of college life at Texas A&M University, earning his stripes in the Corps of Cadets, and helping build the annual bonfire that would be set aflame ahead of that fall’s football game against the University of Texas.
But in the early morning hours of Nov. 18, just over a week away from the match, Braus’ life and countless others changed forever when the nearly 60-foot-tall bonfire structure collapsed mid-construction, bringing down dozens of students who were working on the stack. When the dust settled, 12 students had lost their lives, and 27 others, including Braus, were seriously injured.
Monday marked the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Texas A&M bonfire, and for Braus and the thousands of other Texans affected by the tragedy, it was an opportunity to reflect on the moment that left a deep scar on Aggie life.
“I felt grateful, but also guilty that I was not dead, but 12 other folks right next to me were dead,” Braus told the Austin American-Statesman. “A couple of people I had met before and actually seen that night and they were gone.”
At the time the stack fell, the tradition of the bonfire tradition was more than 90 years old. Originally it was done off-campus, but by the late 1990s, the operation took place on the university polo fields. Over the span of several weeks, students took shifts sawing, hauling and trucking nearly 5,000 logs from a nearby plot of land. The logs were stacked in tiers around a center pole. Those high enough up on the stack would sit on “swings” attached by rope to the top of the center pole, allowing them to easily maneuver around the stack.
On the night of Nov. 17, Braus was late to his shift at the bonfire, having had some corps duties to finish up. At midnight, the shifts turned over and those who had been working on the ground had a chance to get up on the stack. Braus took his position on a swing below the top tier.
It was sometime around 2:40 a.m. when Braus remembers hearing a loud crack, followed by a slight sway of the stack. He knew something was wrong. He looked over at the crane next to him, and wondered for a split second if he could make the leap.
Then, at 2:42 a.m., a second crack. The stack began to spill over.
“I said a prayer, ‘Sacred Heart of Jesus, I place my trust in thee,’ and started falling,” Braus said. “The next thing I have any remembrance of was everything being completely black.”
Braus remembers untangling his legs out from under several logs and scooting himself down the side of the pile, where he laid on the ground. The next hours were a blur of movement. He remembers hearing screaming and sirens. A person asked if he was alive. Someone wrapped him in a silver Mylar blanket. He couldn’t feel his right arm, but he was too afraid to look.
“It was chaos,” he said. “I didn’t know what was going on. I knew there were a lot of people on the stack with me, and I could tell the stack was no longer standing.”
Braus was taken to the hospital with a concussion, a bruised lung and a shoulder that had severely torn ligaments. As the sun rose over College Station, the campus learned of the disaster and the reality of what happened began to set in. During the days that followed, football players, students and community members would join emergency responders in the slow and arduous process of digging through the pile of logs.
“I don’t think anybody’s heart would have been in practice today,” A&M football Coach R.C. Slocum told a Statesman reporter the day after the collapse, while his players were helping haul logs away from the pile.
The names of the dead began to spread: Miranda Adams from Santa Fe, Christopher Breen from Austin, Michael Ebanks from Carrollton, Jeremy Frampton from California, Jamie Lynn Hand from Henderson, Christopher Lee Heard from Houston, Timothy Kerlee from Tennessee, Lucas Kimmel from Corpus Christi, Bryan McClain from San Antonio, Chad Powell from Keller, Jeff Don Self from Arlington and Nathan Scott from West Bellaire.
Thousands came from around the state to pay their respects to the victims, including former President George H.W. Bush. Eight days later, on the field at the University of Texas game, Braus and those who were stable enough to make it stood in honor of the others who had died.
University officials decided to keep their annual match up, just days after the collapse, against rival UT Austin.
In the end, the Aggies beat the Longhorns 20-16. Redshirt linebacker Brian Gamble dropped to his knees on the sideline, both arms raise to the sky with index fingers pointing up.
“I knew God and the 12 Aggies were looking down on us today,'' he said at the time. ”We fought so hard. I think it showed we were meant to win this game. It was just an overflow of emotion, with all the hard times we've been through.“
The years that followed weren’t easy. Although Braus stayed at Texas A&M, his plans to join the military after college had been derailed — the tendons in his upper arm and shoulder had been cut down to the bone. He was disqualified from enlisting.
Then was the issue of responsibility. A&M hired investigators. The structure was examined. Victims and their families filed lawsuits.
Braus, for his part, avoiding joining a lawsuit for as long as possible.
“I very much did not want to be one of the people that brought a claim against A&M,” he said. “I bled maroon.”
But after two years, with the chance to join a lawsuit closing, Braus made a decision to enter the court room. In 2008, A&M settled with the plaintiffs, paying out $2.1 million to victims. The final lawsuit, against two companies that provided cranes and operators for the bonfire, was settled in 2014 for an undisclosed amount. A&M no longer hosts the bonfire, but some students each fall still participate in the construction of a smaller structure off-campus.
The experience of nearly 15 years in litigation had an impact on Braus. He went on to attend law school at Baylor University. Now, he’s an injury attorney for a law firm in Waco. He doesn’t talk much about what happened his freshman year of college. He has a deep scar wrapping around from his shoulder to his underarm, which his two kids, 12 and 6 years old, call his “boo-boo arm.”
On Sunday, Braus and his family traveled to College Station to join with other victims and their families on the same fields where, 20 years earlier, they lost 12 classmates. Today, the field is home to a memorial, with a stone marker indicating the exact location of the center pole.
“I just hope that they never forget those folks that died,“ he said.