Texas Agricultural and Mechanical University (A&M), one of the state's oldest, was preparing to mark the annual American Football game against their arch-rivals, the University of Texas, in the traditional way - by making a 60ft-high bonfire. But as the students were building the vast pile at 2.30am yesterday, the timbers came crashing down, plunging them 40 feet to the ground and crushing many as the huge logs cascaded.
Rescue workers painstakingly pulled the pile of logs apart, while emergency teams using sound detectors looked for survivors. Cynthia Lawson, a spokeswoman for A&M University, said they could hear "moaning and tapping sounds," and the crews worked on until nightfall. Students gathered near the wreckage, many in tears.
The bonfire dates back to the days when the university, north-west of Houston, was a largely military academy, and has been halted only once before, in 1963, after the assassination of President John F Kennedy in Dallas.
George W Bush, the Governor of Texas, was tearful as he spoke about the disaster. He said: "I just can't imagine what that means to have that happen to them. It's sad, it's tough."
Rusty Thompson, assistant director of the Memorial Student Center and the bonfire faculty adviser, said students told him "there was just a sudden movement. Five to seven seconds and it was on the ground."
The students build the bonfire themselves, constructing it so that it collapses back on itself as it burns. They are given expert advice by structural engineers. But it is not the first time that the stack has collapsed. It happened in 1994, though nobody was injured.