Thursday, September 17, 2009

Remember The 1999 Texas A&M Bonfire Tragedy? Juab High School Students Burned When Homecoming Bonfire Explodes In Nephi, Utah

In a scene somewhat reminiscent of the tragic collapse of a wooden bonfire pyramid at Texas A&M University in 1999 in which 12 were killed and 27 others injured, at least three seniors at Juab High School in Nephi, Utah were burned when a homecoming bonfire got out of control on September 9th, 2009, although some media outlets report additional injuries. Full stories from the Salt Lake Tribune, KSL Channel 5, and the Nephi Times-News.

The bonfire, which had long ceased to be officially sanctioned or sponsored by the school district, had been a Homecoming Week tradition at Juab High for 40 years. A wooden pyramid was constructed and lit at a vacant lot on 800 East and 630 North in Nephi. Two Nephi city police officers witnessed the fire being started and working its way around the pyramid of wood in a predictable fashion. But about two minutes later, when it reached the west side of the pyramid, it suddenly and audibly exploded out of control. A 30-foot ball of flame erupted, and a light canyon breeze blew the fire into some of the 200 assembled spectators. Injured sufficiently to require hospitalization were three seniors; Hayden Coombs, J.B. Ellison, and Landon Hitchcock. Hitchcock and Ellison were taken to Nephi Medical Center, while Coombs required airevac to the University of Utah Burn Center in Salt Lake due to more widespread third-degree burns. KSL reports a fourth student was also badly burned, but did not identify the student; they also report that other students could be seen running from the bonfire with parts of their bodies on fire.

By the way, official "burn" description terminology has now changed. First, second, and third degree burns are now officially referred to as superficial, partial-thickness, and full-thickness burns.

Witnesses say some boys were spotted carrying five-gallon cans of gasoline to the site prior to the bonfire being lit, but it has not yet been officially determined whether untimely application of an accelerant contributed to the tragedy. An investigation will determine if somebody may have gotten impatient and poured more gas on the bonfire to accelerate its spread around the pyramid - and picked exactly the wrong time to do it. Nephi City Police Chief Mike Morgan said investigators believe the teens simply used too much gasoline. KSL is reporting that Hayden Coombs was pouring gasoline on the wood as his buddies stood close by with torches, but before he could climb down, the wood ignited. Watch KSL news video embedded below:

Video Courtesy of

However, the students who organized the bonfire appear to have taken all reasonable precautions. Not only did they obtain the necessary permits in advance, but they also arranged to have both the local fire brigade and police officers standing by on the scene. As a result, what could have become a full-blown tragedy like the Texas A&M situation, replete with fatalities, was instead brought under control quickly, resulting in only three people requiring hospitalization. All three are recovering; Ellison and Hitchcock are already back in school. Juab High Principal Rick Robins said all three boys are high school athletes - two play football and one is an avid golfer - and characterized them as "terrific kids, great students, great athletes and a big part of our community."

This is the first time in the 40-year history of this tradition that anything has gone wrong. Students want to continue the tradition in the future. If they do, Juab County Fire Marshal Brad Ostler recommends that firefighters light the blaze and avoid using gasoline. Or just as well, pour the gasoline first, get rid of the gas cans, get the spectators further back, and THEN light the bonfire.

Public comments posted to the Tribune story and the KSL story indicate that most of the public do NOT favor banning the bonfire. They are more impressed with the fact that there's been no previous problem, and believe it to be a fluke. And this is exactly the correct attitude to take. If we ban everything that's dangerous, we might as well ban breathing, because that's dangerous, too.

Adversity is inherently designed into the foundation of the mortal existence. The objective is to learn from tragedy and minimize the threat of recurrence, not run away from living.

1 comment:

BenJoe said...

I actually lit one of the last sanctioned Bon Fires there and the key to safety for us was not letting anyone stand near it when we lit it. In fact we often created crazy ways of lighting it. Like shooting a bow and arrow at it, etc. This was to avoid the fumes catching fire.

Either way, Nephi is a crazy place with people who are HARD CORE traditionalists. Don't mess with tradition, I promise you it will come back to bit you. We have lost many good teachers, leaders, and a principal due to messing with tradition.