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Aggies of the '99 Bonfire look back 20 years later

(KBTX)
Published: Nov. 14, 2019 at 6:56 PM CST
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“It was pretty instantaneous,” said Kristen Sachtleben Stagner. “Hearing a snap.”

“The whole stack just shook,” said Cash Donahoe.

“It happened so fast,” said Erica Alcala, “but then it happened so slow.”

Stagner, Donahoe, and Alcala will never forget that tragic moment 20 years ago.

But that's not where their memories of Bonfire begin.

“It was just a bunch of crazy people,” said Stagner. “People with their heads shaved.”

“Wearing dirty clothes, and you're like, ‘Who are these people?’” Alcala said, “and they're like, ‘Oh, those are the Bonfire people.’”

“When they started Cut, you knew it, because it would be 4:30, 5 o'clock in the morning,” Donahoe said. “They would turn it up to 11 and start blasting music, saying, ‘Get up! Let’s go to Cut!’”

“Most people wouldn't want to do that, but we chose to do it,” said Stagner. “Definitely we became friends.”

These three all lived in a dorm complex known as “FHK” and known for breeding Bonfire spirit.

“I think it's a little bit the confidence of youth but also the power of the Aggie tradition,” Stagner said. “You think that nothing will happen.”

“I never felt unsafe,” said Donahoe.

“I mean, you're 18, 19 years old, so at that point in time you're like, I'm invincible,” said Alcala.

Saturdays at Cut turned into overnights at Stack. Sleepless hours from 6 p.m. until 6 a.m., and dozens of students working at a time.

Soon, it was Push Week.

Then, the early morning of November 18.

“You know, there are always certain things that you remember that are always kind of weird,” said Alcala.

“But I didn't have an overriding feeling of doom coming,” said Stagner.

Alcala and Stagner had been to Stack several times by that point. Donahoe had a different story.

“With Stack, ironically, the first shift that I worked on Stack was the night that it collapsed,” said Donahoe. “So first thing I did when I got out there was I climbed on up.”

“And that's where I was,” Donahoe continued, “when the collapse happened.”

Alcala was on the ground wiring in First Stack logs.

“Hearing some odd crackling noise,” Alcala said, “then hearing ‘Get away!’”

Stagner was in a First Stack swing.

“I rode my swing; it came to the ground,” Stagner said. “Didn't know what was going on—just that it wasn't right.”

And from Second Stack, Donahoe felt the whole wedding cake crumble below him.

“Everything just shifts and I just see horizon, and then the horizon goes up, and then I see just sky,” said Donahoe. “Then I'm tumbling from there.”

After that—chaos.

“I look up,” said Alcala. “It's dusty out there, so you can't see anything.”

“I ran off to the side where I saw a group of people who were praying,” Stagner said. “And I prayed.”

“Turned around and immediately saw a kid that's pinned under Stack; it was crushing his rib cage,” said Donahoe. “He was completely conscious, but he couldn't breathe.”

Donahoe recalls trying to help, but the log felt like a “ten-ton boulder.” That’s when the first responders arrived and pushed the students back.

“It was one of the most disturbing sights I’ve ever seen,” Donahoe said. “So I never knew what happened to him, but I have a guess.”

The next hours—the next days—were a blur, yet dotted with moments so vivid these now-survivors could never forget.

Stagner's father worked on campus.

“I was filthy dirty from working on Stack,” said Stagner. “And I will never, never forget hugging him and seeing him cry.”

“Just being very grateful that I was there to hug my dad, and him very grateful that I was there too,” Stagner said.

“Every time that they brought a body out of Stack, they would cover it with the white sheet,” said Alcala. “So we were all waiting on the perimeter, and at that point in time is when you would know that someone was brought out not alive.”

Vigils and funerals gave way to reports and investigations.

“You kind of shut off—but you don’t,” said Alcala.

Days gave way to weeks and months and years—now 20 of them.

“It’s hard to put into words just how kind of surreal it is to think that that's been 20 years ago,” said Donahoe.

“Makes me reflect upon those who aren't here any longer,” Stagner said, “wondering where they would be if this had all been a different story.”

“I can remember after it happened and people telling us, ‘Just wait: 10 years from now, 20 years from now, you'll be in a different place,’” Alcala said. “And—no.”

Alcala still lives in College Station, a marketing manager for a boutique hotel. She visits the memorial every anniversary.

“I do go back to the dorm on the memorial night, and I speak to the current Student Bonfire students,” said Alcala. “Just tell them about old stories that I had from my year in Bonfire.”

Donahoe is an engineer for NASA in southeast Texas. He's rarely emotional about that night, except when he visits the memorial.

“It's a very—it's a very beautiful place,” said Donahoe. “It almost feels like hallowed ground out there.”

Stagner is a civil engineer living just outside Houston. She's married to a fellow Ag—one who did Student Bonfire in his years. It's not often that she looks through her old Bonfire things, but when she does…

“The perspective it gives you on life, understanding that bad things do happen,” said Stagner. “But yet getting to see the Aggie spirit through that tragedy has been–has been and was amazing.”

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