May 10, 2014

Last of lawsuits over A&M bonfire collapse is settled

The settlement amount with two companies that handled cranes at the bonfire site is being kept confidential, according to Fort Worth attorney Darrell Keith.

Nearly 15 years after the deadly bonfire collapse at Texas A&M University, litigation surrounding the accident that killed 12 students and injured several others has come to an end.

In April, the final defendants, Zachry Construction Corp. in San Antonio and Scott-Macon Equipment, which has a San Antonio office, reached settlements in a lawsuit filed by the parents of four students who were killed and three injured survivors, said Darrell Keith, a Fort Worth attorney.

Keith represented five of the plaintiffs, including the mother of Jerry Don Self, a student from Arlington who was killed.

The settlement amount is being kept confidential at the request of Zachry Construction, but Scott-Macon agreed to pay $171,147, Keith said. The two companies provided cranes and crane operators for the construction of the bonfire.

“All the parties have settled,” Keith said. “I’m very satisfied. We accomplished our goals. We attained fair compensation.”

Representatives for Zachry could not be reached for comment.

Geno Borchardt, a Fort Worth lawyer who represented the parents of Chad Powell, a Keller student killed in the collapse, declined to comment on the final settlements.

Early on the morning of Nov. 18, 1999, 12 people were killed and 27 were injured, some severely, when the 60-foot stack of more than 6,000 logs toppled while about 70 students were working on it. The “wedding cake” design had six tiers of logs bound with wire.

Bonfire, an A&M tradition for nine decades, has not been held since.

Keith said all the parties in the litigation, which included cases in state and federal courts, expected it to take several years. Keith filed the first lawsuit in Tarrant County in March 2001, but it and two others were consolidated and transferred to Brazos County, where Texas A&M is located.

The suits named about 65 defendants, many of whom were student leaders called “red pots,” as well as the university and A&M officials and the construction companies.

The state case never went to trial but was mediated by former Texas Supreme Court Justice Deborah Hankinson in Dallas.

In 2008, a dozen Aggie administrators agreed to pay $2.1 million to the families of the four students killed and three others injured. Four years prior, the student leaders of the construction settled for $5.85 million, which came from their parents’ homeowners policies, Keith said.

Other victims were attached to a federal case that ended in 2007 when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to reconsider a lower-court ruling that Texas A&M officials could not be held responsible for the deaths and injuries.

Dominic Braus, one of the injured, said the final settlements bring a sense of closure. Braus, now a lawyer in Waco, was a freshman who fell from the top of the third stack of logs, nearly losing his right arm when it was partly severed near the shoulder. Doctors were able to reattach the arm, except for the biceps muscles, he said.

“It took a long time,” Braus said of the settlements. “But in the end, justice was done and we can move on.”

The biggest victory came not in the court settlement but when A&M officials agreed that if they ever bring the bonfire back to campus, they will provide architectural and engineering oversight by professionals who have no affiliation with the university, Keith said.

“This has been a 13-year odyssey,” Keith said. “Through the entire process, my clients and I were not against an Aggie bonfire. We were simply against a fatally defective bonfire. That was part of the lawsuit, to help bring about and remedy the problem and hopefully deter it from ever happening again.

“It has been very professionally satisfying and rewarding to bring about some measure of justice.”

Bonfire, Keith said, was among the most-revered traditions at Texas A&M, starting in 1909 and held the night before the football game against the school’s archrival, the University of Texas. If the fire was still burning at midnight, the Aggies would win the game, according to school lore. That very myth is what led to the fatal design and construction of the bonfire in 1999, he said.

From the mid-1980s until 1996, the bonfire was constructed under the guidance of two professors. When they left the university, however, the administration failed to provide the needed professional engineering, architectural and construction science oversight or student supervision, Keith said.

After the accident, a Bonfire Commission report said mistakes were made in 1999 — primarily too much wedging of logs into gaps, overbuilding of the upper stacks and weak wiring — but the report didn’t place blame.

“My investigation revealed a significant number of potentially responsible parties,” Keith said. “They were dodging and evading the obvious fact that there were people obviously responsible. It was also important for the public to see that the legal justice system brought out the truth of what really happened.”

Students were building the bonfire under a rigid timetable and not correctly, and if university advisers had been watching, they could have shut down construction, Keith said.

Moreover, he said, the crane operators should have known that the logs were not being placed properly and stopped the building.

“This myth is what drove the design and construction of bonfire and ultimately spelled its doom,” Keith said. “It was a collapse waiting to happen.”

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