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Texas PE Board Rules on Aggie Bonfire

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Bonfire needs a professional, board rules 

State engineer laws cited 


06/15/2000 


By Christopher Lee Austin / The Dallas Morning News 


AUSTIN - If Texas A&M continues its venerated but risky bonfire tradition,
the annual project for the first time will have to be designed and overseen
by a licensed professional engineer, not students, state officials said
Wednesday. 


The nine-member Texas Board of Professional Engineers, meeting in Corpus
Christi, ruled that the giant, six-tiered log tower amounts to a complex
construction project that should be regulated by state engineering laws. 


The board, which licenses engineers and enforces engineering standards, also
agreed to launch an inquiry into last year's deadly bonfire collapse, which
killed 12 Aggies and injured 27. The inquiry is scheduled to be completed by
September. 


"If it's a structure of this complexity, it will have to be designed by a
professional engineer and properly constructed and supervised by a
professional engineer," said E.D. "Dave" Dorchester, vice chairman of the
board. "Our law requires that we make an inquiry in a situation where
there's an engineering structure that causes harm." 


A&M spokesman Lane Stephenson said the university needed more information
before it could fully react to the decision. 


"The university chooses not to respond until it has received official
notification from the Texas Board of Professional Engineers and has had an
opportunity to review its findings and possibly seek clarification," Mr.
Stephenson said. 


A&M President Ray Bowen is expected to announce this week whether the
university will continue the bonfire tradition, an annual rite leading up to
the Texas-Texas A&M football game. 


Throughout its 90-year history, the bonfire has been designed and built by
students, a particular point of pride at A&M. Wednesday's decision
effectively means the school will have to swallow that pride and alter the
tradition if it is to carry on. 


But it does not mean the bonfire must end, said Victoria Hsu, executive
director of the engineering board. 


"It's A&M's decision, and if they decide to have one, then a professional
engineer and appropriate personnel should be involved," Ms. Hsu said. "I
don't have any doubt that if they decide to have another bonfire that it
will be done in the most safe way." 


A special commission created by A&M reported May 2 that the 59-foot,
student-built bonfire stack collapsed because of poor construction and
design practices made possible by a chronic lack of oversight from the
university. 


Investigators also found that over its long history, the bonfire evolved
from a simple trash pile into "a complex and dangerous structure" that was
"allowed to be built without adequate physical or engineering controls." 


That finding, engineering board officials said, convinced the state agency
that the bonfire was within its jurisdiction. "The report clearly stated
that it's a complex structure that lacked engineering controls," Ms. Hsu
said. 


She said the board had been contacted by several Texas residents, including
the family of one of the bonfire victims, urging state officials to become
involved. 


The engineering board's investigation will focus on whether the construction
and design techniques complied with the Texas Engineering Practice Act.
Under the act, a public work that costs more than $8,000 and requires
structural, electrical or mechanical engineering expertise must be designed
and supervised by a licensed professional engineer. 


The bonfire can cost more than $50,000 a year. If the state investigators
find that the bonfire violated state law, the board could impose fines of up
to $3,000 per violation. The board also could reprimand or revoke the
licenses of A&M faculty engineers who ignored their ethical duty under the
law and failed to raise warnings about the unsafe structure, officials have
said. 


If state engineering standards are not met, the board also could issue a
"cease and desist" order governing bonfire construction.