Jason Heard will bring three young visitors with him to visit the Bonfire Memorial for the first time this Christmas.
Christopher Heard, Jason’s younger brother, was one of the 12 Aggies killed in the Bonfire collapse on Nov. 18, 1999. Jason’s children never knew their uncle, but he said he raises them with Chris in mind. The opportunity to finally show them the place his brother loved so dearly will be a special moment for the whole family, he said.
“We try to raise our children in a way that will make him proud throughout the years, and so to take them to a place where we can show them how his community and the state of Texas memorialized him, it’ll mean a lot to our children and to us,” Jason said.
Both Jason and Chris had similar career aspirations. The brothers desired to serve their country in the military after graduating from college, following in the footsteps of their father, Les, who served as a Navy SEAL.
The path they took created a little good-natured dissent within the family. Jason received his undergraduate degree and met his wife, Amy, at the University of Texas. Chris was immediately attracted to Texas A&M because of the military background of the school, according to his mother, Andrea Heard.
“The minute he walked around, he said, ‘This is for me,’ ” she said. “He just loved it.”
So when the Longhorns and the Aggies met each fall on the football field, the rivalry carried over into the brothers’ relationship, with playful barbs thrown back and forth during game week.
Jason saw how his younger brother thrived at A&M and found his own special admiration for the rival university.
“When they’re playing anybody else who’s not your school, then you’re silently rooting for them,” Jason said. “While you may not admit it out loud, it was great. It was perfect. I was proud of him.”
The night of Nov. 17 was a joyous one for the Heard family. Chris, a 19-year old freshman, called home to inform his parents that he had pledged his service to the U.S. Marines after the completion of his undergraduate degree.
“We talked to him quite a long time, which was nice,” Andrea said. “Because we both knew, as we always did, our last words with him were, ‘We love you.’ ”
The parents had no idea Chris was involved with the construction of Bonfire, Andrea said. The next morning, while she was getting prepared for work, a neighbor called and told her to turn on the television. “ ‘Oh, he wouldn’t be there,’ ” she told herself as she watched the TV reports of the Bonfire collapse.
“But the more we didn’t hear from him, we knew he was, because he would always call to let us know that he is OK,” she said.
The Heards decided to drive from their home in west Houston to College Station to check on him. After they arrived, some of Chris’ friends told them that he had been on top of the stack that evening.
“It was the worst day of our lives,” Andrea said. “To just not know, in your heart — you would never admit to yourself [that he had died] until you really know. I’ll be honest, it is pretty much a blur.”
The Marines posthumously named Chris an honorary member of the service, an honor not lightly bestowed, Jason said.
“It really represented his character,” he said. “Their motto is Semper Fi, always faithful. He was always faithful to his friends and his family and his university, and even right to the end on the Bonfire.”
Chris loved country music and was known to cut a rug, two-stepping to his favorite tracks. After the tragedy, Andrea, a native of England, found herself unable to listen to the genre she learned to love with her son.
“I’d be driving to work bawling my eyes out, you know, and you can’t be doing that,” she said. “So I kind of stopped listening to country.”
Eventually, the weight of memories in Texas became a painful burden for Les and Andrea. A peaceful view of the beach served as an escape and called the family to move to Florida.
The couple decided to build a retirement house but had their plans dashed by Hurricane Michael. Just a few months ago, they decided to give Texas another try and relocated to Tyler.
“I say this storm basically told us we have come to a point in our life that we’ve been able to come full circle,” she said.
With the twang of country music unavoidable in the Lone Star State, Andrea has found herself able to tune into her son’s favorite music again.
Over the past several years, Jason has been stationed at a U.S. Air Force base outside of London, where he lives with his family. He won’t be able to make it to College Station for the 20th anniversary of the Bonfire collapse, but his parents’ return to Texas has opened a new opportunity.
A Christmas trip to the States will begin by meeting in Aggieland to give the youngest members of the family their first look at the Bonfire Memorial, and a chance to reflect on Chris’ life.
It also will provide Andrea with the chance to show her 15-year-old grandson, Cole, around the school his uncle loved so dearly.
If his son should eventually decide Aggieland could be a place to call home, the Longhorn alumnus said it would be a continuation of his brother’s legacy.
“We’ll try to show him the university and get him excited about becoming an Aggie one day, and see if that’s the right place for him,” Jason said. “He’s a great kid and he reminds me a lot of Chris. We would be proud parents to see any of our kids continue Chris’ legacy at A&M.”