Former Aggie Redpot recounts 1999 Bonfire collapse

HARLINGEN, Tex. (KBTX) -- The last bonfire ever built on the campus of Texas A&M University was built and managed by students, and the leaders called ‘Redpots’ were typically seniors.

One former Redpot recalls his last year at A&M was the toughest time of his life. Travis Johnson is currently head of Johnson Farms in south Texas. But 20 years ago, he was the head of Aggie Bonfire as a Redpot.

“Starting as a freshman, you were given the lowest position, clearing brush, learning from upperclassmen,” Johnson continued. ”So it was just information that was passed down.”

Johnson says he always wanted to go to Texas A&M. He was in the Corps of Cadets and even met his wife while at school. Bonfire was a highlight of the fall.

“The best part about bonfire was just working together, building friendship, building camaraderie with other people working towards a common goal,” Johnson said.

But all of that changed on November 18, 1999.

“Just heard this horrific noise and turned around and just saw stack fall over. Immediately ran down there and it was chaos.” Johnson continued. “I think a lot of us were in shock.”

“As soon as I ran down there, I knew it was really, really bad. I could see people that were trapped. It was just kind of like a fog.”

Johnson says the next few months were a blur.

“I went to three funerals in a matter of a week. It was unthinkable, terrible… a lot of disbelief that this could happen,” Johnson continued. “Nothing in comparison to what the families of those affected went through, but for the people that were out there working on it, it was very difficult.”

Lawsuits following the collapse weren’t resolved for nearly 10 years, but Johnson says he never forgot about the collapse.

“You thought about it, dreamed about it. It was kind of fresh on your mind,” Johnson said.

Johnson visits Aggieland once a year, but he’s still never been to the Bonfire Memorial on campus.

“Whenever we do get some weather I consider Bonfire whether that’s a little cool with a little rain, and maybe I smell a campfire, it brings me back,” Johnson continued. “There were so many good times, so many great memories you want to talk about with your friends and your family. But at the same time, it’s a very difficult subject to bring up.”

Johnson still wears his Aggie ring with pride and says the Aggie spirit was never more apparent than in the months that followed the collapse 20 years ago.

“I think Aggies showed what Aggies were and what Aggies are during that time, supporting each other.”

Johnson lost three close friends in the collapse that night. He says that fall impacted the rest of his time at Texas A&M.