11.18.1999 - my story.

I realized tonight that the point of a blog is to share. I’ve done some good sharing, but never really told a story. A true story. An experience that changed my life. So, I’m taking the 10 year anniversary of the single greatest tragedy at Texas A&M to share my story of that day. By no means am I trying to compare my experience with anyone who was injured, was actually there, working on Bonfire, or anything like that. I was just merely a freshman, that didn’t work on Bonfire, that was a new Aggie, and a girl that lost a good friend.

To be honest, it wasn’t until after I read the recent article about Aggie Bonfire in Texas Monthly that it really began to get to me that those of us that were there when Bonfire fell never talked about it. None of us shared our story. It was almost like it was the surreal thing that we were just all trying to get through. We didn’t want to forget, by any means, but we just needed to move forward. And I think, in part, at least for me, it was because we wanted to do what we felt like our friends that we lost would want us to do.

But, I realize now that we kind of dropped the ball. Because we didn’t pass on those first-hand accounts… our experience, whether we were there, whether we weren’t, whether we knew one of the victims or injured, or not. The next classes after us lost out on what Bonfire meant to us, personally.

So. This is my story.

November 18, 1999

I lived in Mosher dorm, and if you looked out of my window, through the limbs of a big oak tree, you could see Bonfire standing tall. I was not a Bonfire girl. I was the last person to volunteer to wake up at 4am on a Saturday morning to go into a forest to chop down trees. I was excited about Bonfire. But, I really didn’t have the desire to work on it.

I had a calculus test at 8am on November 18th. So, naturally I was attempting an all-nighter the night before. My family had called me around 11:30 that night to tell me about the meteor shower that was going to happen around 2am. They were all going to go check it out and thought that I may want to go watch it somewhere in College Station. I had every intention of staying up to study, so I thought it’d be a good idea to head over to the O&M building and try to get into the observation deck to watch it. I’m thankful now that I didn’t, because the O&M building observation deck overlooks the Polo Fields, where Bonfire was being built. Had I not fallen asleep, I may have seen it fall.

My roommate, Leah, and I were asleep when our suitemates bursted into our room at 4:30 on the morning of November 18th and said, “Bonfire fell and a bunch of people are dead.” They were heading down to the sight to see what dorms and Corp squads were supposed to be working on it on that shift. I immediately listed off a list, “check to see if Off-Campus Ags, Dunn or FHK were there!” I had 3 good friends from home that I knew were working on Bonfire. 1 guy and 2 girls. I immediately got really worried. Leah turned on our little TV and they had a live video feed on the A&M station at the sight. There were no words. Just the live video. I remember it being haunting. We just sat there and watched. We prayed and watched.

At 6am, I knew my dad would be getting up, and learning of the news. So, I called home. Not to say that I was okay, because my parents knew better to question if I was at the sight. But, I called to have them check call the parents of Katie McCrady, John Pool and Jamie Hand. Leah went on to class to see if they were cancelling classes or not, and I just waited. It wasn’t too long after I got off of the phone that my mom called me back. I was in the bathroom. I remember her saying that she called the Hand’s house to check on Jamie and that Kristen, Jamie’s sister who was a year younger than us, answered the phone. That Kristen told my mom that they couldn’t find Jamie and that Mr. & Mrs. Hand were on their way to College Station. At this point, I fell to the ground and started crying. When my mom said, “We are on our way.” I just remember saying, “ok.” My mom told me later that she knew that I needed them at that time… that I didn’t try to turn them away or tell them not to worry… which had been my response to them so many times before. After I got off the phone, I called Rachael Jacob, my other good friend from high school that was also at A&M. We made plans to meet up at a certain time and she would go with me and my parents to find the Hands. I then called my best friend, Brooke. Brooke lived in College Station too, but had gone home to Henderson early for the weekend. So, I told her what was going on and just let her know I would keep her up-to-date as much as I could. I remember really wishing that she hadn’t had already left…

It turns out that I had the spawn of satan as my calculus instructor. Leah came back to tell me that my class was still meeting and it looked like everyone was taking their test. So, livid, I went to class. I sat down and literally filled in A-B-C-D-E on each line of the scantron. I will never forget when the Corp guy came in. He had on his Bonfire working gear, completely covered in dirt. The prof made him sit down to take his test. This is when the already livid East Texas girl became even more livid. Feisty Sarah came out in full force. I marched down to the prof and told him that I thought he was horrible for making us take the test… that obviously there were a lot of questions on our minds that weren’t calculus related. And then I said it for the first time, “And my dear friend is missing, we don’t know if she’s dead or alive. So, screw your test and we WILL be getting a make-up exam.” I turned around and stomped out. That was the last time I would feel good for a while…

By that time, my parents were in town and Rachael and I met up. {I guess I should first explain the relationship my parents had with Jamie. Jamie was my absolute best friend in the whole world for about 3 years. She literally spent almost every weekend at my house. My parents adored her, as they did all of my girlfriends in High School. They treated, and still treat, my friends as if they were their own. Even after Jamie and I drifted a little, we were still really good friends. She could light up the room with her smile and we all just adored her. So, my parents were coming for me, but they were also coming for the Hands and for all of the other friends that would just need a momma or daddy to hug on them.} We found the Hand’s, Jamie’s oldest sister – Shelly and her husband, Jake Fears (a good friend that was a sophomore), Holly Christian (a girl from Henderson that was older, but working at A&M) and some other friends of the Hands that were from Henderson. They were all at the MSC, at the information room for any family or friends trying to find out about certain people. They had no word on Jamie, except that someone thought they saw her get into an ambulance. So, they told us to go to College Station Medical Center. Thus began the longest day of my life…

We got to CSMC to find that they had no word on Jamie. She hadn’t been admitted there… we were told to go try St. Joesph’s in Bryan. I have no idea what time all of this was going down, but I just remember that time stood still. So, with the help of Holly (cause none of us students knew where anything was in Bryan), we caravanned to Bryan. I remember St. Joe’s being a lot more chaotic than CSMC. They actually had a huge waiting room specifically for Bonfire, and it was packed. Again, no word on Jamie. And, looking back on it, I wouldn’t have wanted their jobs for anything… they were just as in shock as all of us. They told us to wait in the waiting room and they would try to find out anything they could.

I remember that Rachael and I kind of walked off from the group. I have no idea why, but when we did… we saw a girl sitting by herself, she had been crying and she had an FHK dorm hat on. FHK was Jamie’s dorm. We asked her if she knew anything about Jamie Hand. The girl said, “Are you here with her family? I’ve been waiting for them.” We immediately grabbed Shelly’s husband and she proceeded to tell us that someone had thought they saw her get into an ambulance. But, Jamie had recently gone back to her natural hair color (brown) from being a blonde. The girl they saw was blonde… She then said that Jamie wasn’t there and that they couldn’t figure out where she would be. After the story was told to the hospital staff and the Hand’s, we were told that our answers would be at the stack.

That was the first time I had gone out there. It was afternoon by this point… I think around 2:00. It was crazy. Surreal and just crazy. People were everywhere. People were just there watching and waiting. The Hand’s were ushered off to a private waiting room, so mom, dad, Rachael and I just sat down on some logs. At some point, my dear friends, Justin Hobbs, Josh Hoover and Kent Evans showed up to wait with us. I didn’t know it then, but those 3 guys would be instrumental in helping me get through the rest of my freshman year and dealing with what was about to happen.

Katie McCrady found us too. She had worked on stack on the shift before the fall, but had come back out to help. They were only allowing certain students, mainly those that had worked on stack, to help lift logs. I realized after reading the Texas Monthly article that it was like a huge, multi-ton heavy Jenga game. One wrong move of one log, and many more people could have been hurt. Also, the logs were all twinned together with wire… so you couldn’t just pick them up… there was a process to lift every single log off to get to those that were trapped. I remember someone coming over an intercom asking everyone to be quiet, that they were dropping down a microphone into stack to see if they could hear anyone. You could have heard a pin drop. I remember holding my breath… just praying that there was a sound. I don’t think at that time I knew how many people they had found dead.

At the insistence of Hobbs, we left my parents at our “post” and went for a walk. We were talking to someone, when all of a sudden the crowd fell silent again, but this time, you could hear a shift of body position. Everyone was turning to face stack. It was the most eerie sound I have ever heard, and I can’t even explain what came over me. But, I looked at Rachael and said, “we need to get back.”

As we walked back over to where my parents were stationed, my dad was sitting there, cradling Katie. She was sobbing uncontrollably. My dad was just rocking her. My mom was nowhere to be seen. Katie looked at me and just said, “Sarah, she’s gone.” Rachael started crying and I just stood there. I was in absolute shock. I wanted to go to the Hand’s. I started walking towards their trailer, and met my mom on her way back. She was crying really hard and just told me that I didn’t need to go see them just yet. She walked back with me, and I just remember saying, “I need my cell phone.”

In 1999, the cell phone coverage anywhere really wasn’t all that great. The lines had been clogged all day long, and we had only been able to make or receive a small handful of calls all day. I had gone back to my dorm before going out to the sight and gotten a list of messages that Leah had been taking for me while we were hospital jumping. At any rate, I grabbed my phone and proceeded to make calls to friends from home. I will never forget walking away from sight, sitting on the ground with no one around, and having to call some of my dearest friend to tell them that our friend had died. It was, to date, one of the hardest things I have ever had to do.

My parents were trying to get me to go home with them that night. But, I couldn’t. I wasn’t ready. I knew that when I got home, I was going to be asked about what happened that day… and I wasn’t ready to re-live it. I needed some time. I worked it out to ride home with a few people the next day. I got back to my dorm, Leah was gone, and I just sat on the bed… and stared into space. I was in absolute, total shock. I still hadn’t cried. Hobbs called me, and after somewhat of an insistent argument on his part, he talked to me into packing an overnight bag and he was on his way to pick me up. He had promised my parents that he would take care of me, and he wasn’t going to fall through.

I got to Hobbs and Josh’s house and I just remember being sandwiched between them on the couch, watching the news. I think that was the first time I realized that 11 people had died. And I just couldn’t believe that one of my friends was one of those 11.

I went into Hobbs’ room to sleep. We talked for a while, and he told me that I should call Brooke. He shut the door as he left, I called Brooke… and as soon as I started talking to her, I lost it. I finally started mourning my friend. I’m still a little baffled as to why it took me so long. When I was hanging up with Brooke, she told me that if I didn’t get up and get Hobbs’ to hug me she would kick my butt the next day. So, I did. And I cried even more. Josh was outside on the porch strumming his guitar… and it turns out he wrote a song about what I went through that night. It’s still so special to hear that song.

After I got home the next day, Brooke was at my house waiting on me. Mom, Brooke, our friend – Hayley and I went over to the Hands’. I don’t remember much from being there, but I remember telling Mrs. Hand about how Jamie made signs that said “Bonfire or Bust” on the way down to the ’98 Bonfire during our senior year of high school. And that I just couldn’t help but have peace over the fact that she died doing something she absolutely loved. When we got in the car, I remember my mom saying something about how proud she was of me and just the comforting things I had said to Mrs. Hand. I see so clearly now that the Lord has definitely blessed me with a spiritual gift of comforting others. Because, that was all God speaking through me.

I remember our group of friends (which probably totaled our entire senior class) just spent every minute we could together during that time. We had all grown up with each other, and Jamie was the first friend we had lost… that we could really grasp. We all just didn’t know what to do. The funeral was a daze. It was all a daze… for all of us.

I didn’t go back to College Station until Thanksgiving afternoon. I had gotten Taylor and Blair UT tickets with me in the student section a month or so before, and mom, dad, Tresa and Neal had gotten tickets too… so we had already planned on going down to Bonfire and to the game. But, instead of Bonfire, we had a candlelight vigil at the sight. I just remember the sea, literal sea, of candlelight. And, then the whole crowd began to walk to Kyle Field for Midnight Yell. I don’t remember much about that Yell Practice… but I remember the 12 cannon shots that were fired. Riveting. There wasn’t a dry eye in the entire place.

The next day was the game. Before the game began, they released 12 white doves from the field. Blair, who was 11 at the time, and Taylor, who was 17, just hugged me so tight. It was one of the most precious moments I think I’ve ever shared with them. I was so grateful to have them there with me at that game. At halftime, the UT band was unbelievable. They played “Amazing Grace” and just played the most respectful and appropriate halftime show they could have. Then the Aggie Band just carried the torch. I get chills even now just thinking about it. And, then… we won. We won. I cry every time I think about that win. It was so much more than just winning a game, it was a glimmer of hope, a little light in the darkness that we had all been in, it gave us all something to smile about. I know that God is in all things… and God was definitely in that win on that Friday in November.

When I got back to school after Thanksgiving, I had an extremely hard time. I just struggled with her death. Not with God… I don’t think I asked why… but I just kept on thinking I would wake up from the dream I was living in. Looking back on it, I was just surrounded by it everywhere I turned. If I was at A&M, I was surrounded by the reminders… If I went home, I was surrounded by reminders. I just didn’t have an escape from it. But, I see now that God didn’t want me to escape from it. I had to face it, had to deal with the discomfort. My relationship with Him definitely grew because of Bonfire. Breakaway on Tuesday nights became my safe-haven. I could stand in the back there and cry, I felt surrounded by God’s love in that place… and I didn’t want to miss that. The very first Breakaway after Thanksgiving, we sang “Shout to the Lord”. I remember the line “the mountains bow down and the seas will roar at the sound of Your Name” absolutely broke me. It just made me realize that the God of Heaven and earth, the God that had made Jamie had taken her away. He had a much better plan for her than she or anyone else had for her. Basically, it just hit me that we all live for Him, we all exist for Him, and He chooses our next steps.

“My Jesus, my Savior. Lord, there is none like You. All of my days, I want to praise the wonders of Your mighty love. My Comfort, my Shelter. Tower of Refuge and Strength. Let every breath with all that I am, never cease to worship You! Shout to the Lord, all the earth let us sing. Power and Majesty, Praise to the King! The mountains bow down and the seas will roar at the sound of Your Name! I sing for joy at the work of Your Hands, forever I’ll love You, forever I stand. Nothing compares to the promise I have in You!”

Ten years after the fact, I think about Jamie a lot. I wonder what she would have accomplished by now if she were still here. The girl was destined for huge things. She always wanted to be famous, but in a way, she is. Her signature, her portrait, her story is forever embedded in Aggieland at the Bonfire Memorial… but also in Aggie history. With a school that is so incredibly rich in tradition and its history, my dear, sweet friend, our Jamie, will never be forgotten.

So... if you are still reading, that's my story. One of a million experiences from that day. One this day, I pray for the families and friends of those that lost someone they loved. I pray for those that worked on Bonfire, whether injured or not. I pray for Aggieland. And I pray for God to guide the A&M administration with His wisdom on whether or not to bring Bonfire back to campus.


Aggieland. How I love thee...

I confess. I'm ridiculous. I haven't blogged in a VERY long time. But frankly, I have absolutely NO idea where the month of October went. We have a dry-erase calendar in our apartment, and it still reads September.

Do you remember the days when you were a kid and you couldn't WAIT for that slumber party with your best friends? All day at school, you all would just be so excited that you were just anticipating the bell to ring for the end of class, just so you were one class closer to getting the party started? Well... I had a "grown-up" one of those days last Friday! It was the 5th Annual Brew-B-Que at Aggieland! And almost all of my favorite Aggies were going to be in attendance. I could not wait to get on the road.

My summary of the entire weekend is below:

"I threw it on the grroooouuuund!!"
Fitzwilly's hamburger. Delicious.
Josh Hoover... live and in concert
Impromptu Karaoke Training
Late night Taco C
BShaw and the Great Vat of Cheese
Best laugh of 2009
4am Bedtime
Surprise! Mo (Melissa) Cox is in the house!!
Campus... ahhh warm fuzzy heart
New massive Aggie Ring photo ops

Brew-B-Que Tailgate!!
J-Hey and the man beard



Corner Bar - Rooftop Bar for the game.
Wings-N-More... yummm delish
Aggies Win!!
Bshaw doing the limbo

Cafe Excel for a "grown up" dinner
"Do you know the difference between spots and balls?"
Northgate fun.
Almost killing Linda... not on purpose though.
"Do you like Mariah Carey??"
wake up call from our favorite Brew-B-Que guy friends.
Brunch at the Bodega

Mom & Dad stop by with... Layla!!!
reunited with my dog = awesome.
Save the Date pics for Ber & Billy Bob
rehash all the fun stories on the way home.

One another Aggie note, if you haven't read the incredible article in Texas Monthly about the Aggie Bonfire, you are missing out. It makes me proud to be an Aggie, it brought me to tears, but it was a good reminder of how much I've grown-learned-changed because of that November day 10 years ago. Click HERE for the article.

I can not express the pure joy I had from a weekend with great friends. God keeps reminding me of his incredible blessings through my friendships.... both old and new. And I am truly blessed to have gone to such an amazing school, with incredible people. Aggieland is just good for my soul sometimes. I love that place... it's like my home away from home home.

"There's a spirit can ne'er be told, it's the Spirit of Aggieland!"