Memories of Bonfire collapse rescue efforts remain vivid for first responders

COLLEGE STATION, Tex. (KBTX) - When the Aggie Bonfire collapsed, first responders remained calm in the chaos.

College Station firefighter Darrin Allen says adrenaline helped him and others push through the tragedy unfolding in that early morning of
November 18, 1999.

"It's something that shaped my life. I grew up a lot that night, unfortunately," said Allen.

At 25, he wasn't much older than the lives he was tasked with saving.

"I can remember getting toned out. I can actually remember going, why are we going to campus because A&M has their own EMS. We got to Texas Avenue and Holleman and they confirmed there were multiple casualties, so we knew it was the real deal at that point," said Allen.

Also real, the challenge to just do their jobs. Stack was still unstable.

"If you move this log, what would it do to the next log? You really had to think about it," said Allen.

Once they removed the students they could reach, each first responder focused on someone still trapped.

"The main time I out there for the six hours, I basically laid in the dirt with John. John Comstock is who I finally took care of and stayed with him," said Allen.

Allen says Comstock couldn't speak much but asked him to call his mom in Dallas.

"I said, 'I'm a firefighter with the College Station Fire Department. I don't know if you're aware but Bonfire has fallen and your son is trapped. He's still alive at the time but if you can make your way, definitely just pack your stuff and head to College Station.'"

Just feet away was another young man Allen tried to reassure.

"We're going to get you out of here. He said, 'No, I'm going to die. You don't understand. I have asthma and can't breathe.'"

Bill Davis survived but Allen didn't know that until much later.

"For 16 years I thought he died. That was just a weight that was lifted off," he said.

Allen and his family are now friends with Comstock and Davis.

He knows first responders did what they could on that dark morning, but, "I can't count on all my fingers the ones that I wished I could have saved. You're never gonna let it go. I don't care how long time goes by. There's still 12 people that died that night that never got to live their life," said Allen.

"The one thing that truly unified this campus as a whole, current, past and future generations, ended up, ultimately, being one of the biggest scars for us," said Brandy Norris, Assistant Chief with the College Station Police Department.

Bonfire is a bittersweet topic for Norris. As an Aggie, she has great memories of attending with her friends and meeting her future husband.

"Dennis and I met Bonfire night 1994," said Norris.

But just five years later, it would make a different type of impact.

"It's crazy how vivid the memories are," said Norris.

Norris was six months pregnant, working in dispatch instead of her usual patrol job.

"It was hard to sit there and be at a distance, you know, knowing the severity of what we were dealing with," said Norris.

She recalls feeling stressed by the tone in the voices on the radio coming from her colleagues.

"We worked with the same people every single night and you get to the point where you can hear in someone's voice, they're okay. They're not okay," she said.

Her patrol sergeant at the time had a tough call to make.

"I knew it was bad from the tone in his voice, and well, him saying, 'Get back. It's not stable.' He was concerned about it falling further and trapping some of our officers or firefighters. (Karla asking: And that's not an easy thing to say…to make that call.) Right. Knowing that you've got people who need your help but you've got the realization that if we get trapped too, we're not good to anybody," said Norris.

As news spread, Norris started taking calls from new concerned voices.

"Parents wanted us to go and find their children and check on them. And as much as we would have loved to have done that, we couldn't. We had every resource we had out at the stack. We just didn't have the resources to knock on doors and check on people's kids. But as a parent, I get making that call," said Norris.

Norris believes something good comes out of all tragedy.
She saw that in the response from strangers across the state calling to see how they could help and the local community immediately finding ways to support extended rescue efforts through their donation of food and other supplies.

She says Bonfire made the local agencies a better first responder community.

"It's the first time I remember us genuinely pulling together and going, we have a community-wide tragedy. And we're not Bryan. We're not College Station. We're not Texas A&M. We are us and we have to pull together to get this done. And that's exactly what happened," said Norris.