From the Twenty years later: Remembering Bonfire series
- By KENNY WILEY email@example.com
- Nov 1, 2019
John Comstock, a survivor of the 1999 Aggie bonfire collapse, is pictured Oct. 23 at Aggie Park on the Texas A&M University campus.
This story is part of a series remembering those who were affected by the Bonfire collapse on the Texas A&M campus on Nov. 18, 1999. Twelve Aggies were killed and 27 were injured.
Holding the attention of hundreds of children and teenagers is no easy task for many adults. On a cool October weekday, John Comstock had scores of Allen Academy students and staff members captivated as he told the story of being trapped for seven hours on the morning of Nov. 18, 1999, after the Texas A&M Bonfire collapsed. Twelve Aggies were killed. Comstock was among the 27 injured and was the last survivor pulled from the wreckage.
Now nearing 40, Comstock works for the Texas A&M University System as a financial specialist. He said he appreciates the chances he’s received, especially lately, to speak to groups about the injuries and his journey from despair to normalcy.
“I’ve felt like if my story can help somebody else — if it can help just one person at a school or in a crowd — then it’s worth it,” he said.
Comstock worked extensively this year with filmmaker Charlie Minn on a documentary titled The 13th Man, which opens Nov. 7 at Premiere Cinema in Bryan. That, coupled with speaking engagements and a book he has been writing on his experiences, have all proven therapeutic, Comstock said.
“I’m hoping that the documentary and the speaking appearances help people overcome their tragedies, because at some point, each of us will face hardships,” he said. “With all life comes suffering, eventually. I hope my story helps with facing that.”
Bonfire quickly became a part of Comstock’s life at A&M; a Bonfire crew chief recruited him to join the building team in his first few days on campus. He shared with the Allen Academy students details about the night of Nov. 17 that led into the early morning hours of the 18th.
“I was up in my room studying, and then [Bonfire crew members] came by my room at about 12:30 [a.m.],” he said. “They banged on my door. I refused at first and told them I had to study for the tests. They said, ‘Nah, you haven’t missed a cut or a stack, so come on, let’s go,’ and so I went.”
He recounted the moment of the collapse and the aftermath. He was on the six-tier structure’s fourth stack. The Bonfire stood at 40 feet before the collapse, and would have been completed at 55 feet.
“I was out for just a few seconds, and when I woke up and opened my eyes, I was completely blinded by dirt,” Comstock said.
As Comstock waited, holding on to life, he didn’t know the scope of what had happened. He compared the recovery effort to a game of pick-up sticks, with first responders worried that moving logs to free him would harm others who were trapped.
“At that point, I knew that things had fallen on top of me, but I didn’t really know much except that my left arm was free,” he said. He stuck his arm up, waved it and said that someone quickly grabbed his hand.
“The person said, ‘The EMTs know where you are — they’ve been called and they’re on their way. I have to go help other people right now, but they know where you are.’”
The fireman closest to him was trying to keep him awake and alert, he said.
“About every 20 minutes, the fireman would ask me to give a thumbs-up if I was OK, and that’s how the night went on,” he said. “I got to the point where I was about to give up, and I said, ‘How much longer?’ and he said, ‘A little bit longer.’ ”
“You know, you’ve told me that a thousand times already,” Comstock recalled telling the fireman. “I need to know how much longer you need me to go, and that’s what I’ll do.’ He hesitated a little bit, and then he said there was one more person to get out, and it’ll probably take about an hour. So I said I can do one hour.”
As he waited before being rescued, Comstock didn’t know what lay ahead for him. He said the thought crossed his mind, as the pain raged, that he might never walk again.
He stayed for nearly three months at the College Station Medical Center and endured numerous surgeries and other procedures. Comstock’s right hand sustained permanent injury, and part of his left leg was amputated. He is a wheelchair user today and drives a customized truck. He said that he strived in the months and years following the collapse to gain as much independence as possible.
Comstock reflected on what it has been like for him to be synonymous, essentially, with the Bonfire tragedy.
“I sometimes find it comical that I’m famous for the tragedy of my life instead of some great accomplishment — but I’m working on it,” he said, laughing.
Each year on the anniversary date, Comstock said he goes to the polo fields where the collapse occurred. The memorial was recently renovated to allow better wheelchair access; Comstock expressed appreciation for those efforts, as it was previously difficult for him to get to the site, he said. TOP ARTICLES2/5READ MORECalendar for Tuesday
“I like the memorial for the remembrance of the 12,” Comstock said. “I didn’t really know them, so it’s powerful to go to the gateway and look and see what’s been written about them.”
In 2016, he wrote an open letter to the community, published in The Eagle. In it, he wrote that it was tough to find the words to describe what Bonfire meant — and still means — to him.
“I know those 12 names well, and I know I easily could have been the 13th name on that list,” he wrote.
At Allen Academy, he told the students that he was so close to death in the aftermath of the collapse that A&M wrote a press release announcing his death. Comstock had that release framed.
As the first Aggie in his family, Comstock said that he came to A&M unaware of the school’s traditions.
“Before the collapse, A&M was a different place than it is now,” Comstock said. “People had pro-Bonfire things in their windows and dorms, and people were all about it — especially the people who worked on it. … We always said 5,000 people built it and 70,000 watched it burn.”
When he speaks to students or other groups, Comstock said he strives to express that his life has been full of ups and downs, and that, with support, he has found a way each time to recover. He shares the pride he felt when he graduated from A&M in 2010. He discusses the role his mother, Dixie Edwards, played in his life and in his recovery. Edwards died in 2007.
“She was a great mother who sacrificed anything and everything she had to make sure that I was OK and taken care of,” he said in an interview this week.
He also mentions the self-pity he worked through over the years, and about his current everyday existence. He shows photos of him singing karaoke with friends.
Comstock describes his daily life now as “normal, for the most part.” He told the Allen Academy students and staff about his decision to make an online dating profile, for which he used a photo of him in his wheelchair as the profile picture.
“I wanted them to know exactly what they were getting themselves into,” he said. “It turned out to be a blessing, because it got rid of all the people who didn’t want to be with me right away. If you ever feel sorry for me, I certainly don’t — not one bit.”
That experience led Comstock to meeting his now-wife, Michelle, and his now-stepson Joseph. Comstock and Michelle were married in May.
He said that Michelle suggested May 4 — International Star Wars Day — as their wedding date, and also brought up the idea of a Star Wars-themed wedding, complete with an officiant dressed as Obi-Wan Kenobi.
“Now we’re talking,” Comstock, chuckling, said of the suggestions. “The relationship is the happiest I’ve ever been.”
Allen Academy’s head of school, Matthew J. Rush, said the students were moved by Comstock’s appearance, with some asking questions afterward. One student, to Comstock’s visible amusement, asked whether he ever made up the exams he was scheduled to take on Nov. 18, 1999. Comstock smiled as he said he did not.
“Our kids love hearing stories, and this one hits home because we’re in Aggieland,” Rush said. “And while none of them were alive 20 years ago, there’s still a strong connection. To see how he took a terrible and tragic thing and decided to get busy living and find a passion, that’s a powerful message for our students to hear.”
Comstock is glad to share about his life, he said, in the hopes that doing so helps people who are struggling to “hold on a little longer,” the way that he did 20 years ago.
“I tell people not to quit, even when things are hard,” Comstock said. “It’s not really for anyone but yourself, because you’ll know you quit, and that’s probably the most damaging thing for somebody.”
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From the Twenty years later: Remembering Bonfire series By KENNY WILEY firstname.lastname@example.org Nov 1, 2019 John Comstock, a survivor of the 1999 Aggie bonfire collapse, is pictured Oct. 23 at Aggie Park...
This story is part of a series remembering those affected by the Bonfire collapse on the Texas A&M campus on Nov. 18, 1999. Twelve Aggies were killed and 27 were injured.
Jamie Lynn Hand’s clothes, photos and artwork remain in the Henderson home of Larry and Neva Hand, each item too precious and full of memories to part with.
It’s been two decades since the 19-year-old environmental design freshman, who aspired to study graphic design, died in the Aggie Bonfire collapse.
For Neva, even the happiest family occasions continue to be affected by Jamie’s absence. Not long after Jamie died, her youngest sister graduated from high school and her oldest sister had her second child. Neva said it hurts to see Jamie missing from photos of such important occasions.
“If you’ve never lost a child, there is no way you can understand what grief is like,” Neva said.
It was the biggest challenge the family has faced, but Larry said moving forward was critical. Their youngest daughter, Kristen Smith, was still in high school. Their oldest, Shelley Mraz, and second-oldest, Melissa Hand, still needed them, too.
The family’s Christian faith continues to play a major role in coping with Jamie’s passing, Larry said. Connecting with other people in the same situation has also been helpful. Kenny and Carolyn Adams know their struggles. Their daughter, Miranda Denise Adams, was the other female student to die in the Bonfire collapse.
For many years after the tragedy, the two couples went to Aggie football games together. Neva said part of the motivation was to have an excuse to be in College Station to check on Smith, who was attending Texas A&M, but it was also comforting to be around parents who understood their pain.
“It was therapy,” Neva said. “Sitting next to them during the games, knowing that you’ve got someone sitting right next to you who understands completely how you feel about everything.”
The Hands also found comfort in the friendship they found in Jerry and Bulinda Ebanks, who lost their son Michael Stephen Ebanks in the collapse.
The annual Bonfire Remembrance ceremony on Nov. 18 has been an additional way to cope. They are able to see students — many of whom weren’t born before the tragedy — who want to remember their daughter and the others who died. Larry and Neva said it is a touching experience that they have witnessed every year except for one since the Bonfire Memorial opened in 2004.
“One of the things we heard most often after the stack fell is, ‘We will never forget,’” Neva said. “It means a great deal to us that [the ceremony] happens every year, and sure enough, people don’t forget.”
Smith said she has been to several of the ceremonies, and that she appreciates the annual tribute. 00:14 / 00:14TOP ARTICLES4/5READ MOREMilitary funeral service for WWIIveteran at Aggie Field of Honor today
“I always like to see the people who go out to honor the 12 fallen and see the community and camaraderie between everybody,” Smith said. “They take it seriously and are very respectful. It just warms my heart that all these Aggies are still coming out to show their support and respect to those who fell on Bonfire.”
The Hand family members have honored Jamie in their own ways. Most of her belongings remain in Larry and Neva’s home in Henderson, but the other three daughters have meaningful items as well.
Smith named her first daughter after Jamie. She said she is grateful to Jamie’s friends, who immediately embraced her as part of their group when she started attending A&M and became her support system away from home.
Jamie was outgoing, friendly and a perfectionist, Smith said. Some of Jamie’s art hangs in her house as a reminder of their relationship and the adventures they shared.
Some of those adventures are even carved into Jamie’s portal at the Bonfire Memorial, from rollerblading with no brakes to swimming in ponds late at night by the headlights of a truck.
Jamie’s oldest sister, Mraz, said her personality was unforgettable.
“She had a laugh that was contagious,” Mraz said. “It was just a little giggle and a rumbling, and it made everyone want to smile and laugh with her.”
Mraz lives in Tyler, and said the last time she saw Jamie was when they were both in College Station for a football game. They had dinner together, and Mraz remembers their hug goodbye.
Jamie’s birthday is a particularly difficult time, Larry and Neva said. Every year, Neva wears a necklace with Jamie’s name on it — a gift from Carolyn Adams — and they take flowers to Jamie’s gravesite in Henderson.
The Hands said they want to see Jamie’s personality traits of friendliness, commitment and an outgoing spirit present in future A&M students. To ensure this, the couple started a scholarship in Jamie’s name. Each year, it is awarded to one high school student from Henderson.
“We’re in on selecting the recipient, and we try to make it someone who is much like Jamie,” Neva said. “Someone involved. Someone who wants to serve.”
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Editor’s Note This story is part of a series remembering those affected by the Bonfire collapse on the Texas A&M campus on Nov. 18, 1999. Twelve Aggies were killed and 27 were injured. Jamie Lynn Hand’s...
Originally published by Texas A&M Today.
The Texas A&M University Bonfire Memorial and the adjacent Bonfire Memorial Parking lot reopened today following the completion of maintenance work that makes the walkways compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations. The maintenance work was carried out Aug. 22-Nov. 3. A guided audio tour of the memorial is available at tx.ag/bonfirememorialtour
While the site was scheduled to reopen Nov. 1, recent rains delayed the crew’s work.
The Bonfire Memorial walkways were previously covered with loose gravel, which was difficult to maintain and posed accessibility concerns to visitors of the site. After consultation with Robert Shemwell of Overland Partners, Inc. in San Antonio, one of the original designers of the memorial, Texas A&M University settled on a solution that would maintain the original design.
The maintenance consisted of gravel removal, regrading of walkways, and new gravel installation, along with a topical application of Klingstone, a water permeable product that binds materials together. Similar applications of this product have been used elsewhere on campus.
The newly graded walkways at the Bonfire Memorial will ensure that people of all abilities are able to visit the site, a memorial to the 12 lives lost at the bonfire collapse of 1999.
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