As the 20th anniversary of the Nov. 18, 1999, Texas A&M Bonfire collapse that killed 12 people and injured 27 approaches, dozens of area residents filled two premiere showings Thursday night of a documentary that chronicles the tragedy and its aftermath.
U.S. Rep Bill Flores, R-Bryan, was among those on hand at Premiere Cinema in Bryan to watch The 13th Man: On November 18, 1999, a College in Texas Changed Forever, directed by filmmaker Charlie Minn. Minn’s documentary weaves together television footage, newspaper clippings and emergency scanner recordings from the night of the collapse with interviews of Bonfire survivors, first responders, community members and family members of those who died nearly 20 years ago.
“I’m honored that they allowed me to tell their story and that they trusted me,” Minn said of those he interviewed for the documentary.
The 13th Man, with a runtime of about 110 minutes, centers on the journey of John Comstock, who was a freshman at A&M working on the Bonfire when it collapsed. He was the last survivor pulled from the wreckage of the multi-story stack and sustained lasting injuries.
Video footage of his lengthy rehabilitation process is often in the background as he describes his life before, during and after the collapse.
Comstock said after the showing that it was an emotional experience for him to watch the documentary.
“There’s a lot of great footage in the film,” Comstock said. “I hope the film inspires people to overcome whatever struggles they’re having — that if I can overcome it, they can, too.”
Comstock’s wife, Michelle, and several other family members attended. Comstock’s cousin, Leslie Comstock-Day, was interviewed at length in the film. In the documentary, she recalled how close her cousin was to death on three different occasions, and that he spent months in the hospital.
Before the film’s showing, Comstock-Day said, voice filled with emotion, that “John is my miracle.”
“For others to see what he has endured and where he is now — it is phenomenal,” Comstock-Day said. “During that time, we lost 12, and people were hurting. During that time, the world was holding College Station together. I want the world to see, and I don’t want those 12 to ever be forgotten.”
Janice Kerlee, whose son Timothy Doran Kerlee Jr. died the day after the collapse after sustaining critical injuries, spoke to the audience in one theater following the film’s conclusion. The film shared that Tim Jr., pinned in the fallen stack, pointed first responders to other victims and prioritized them above himself.
With the audience after the showing, Janice shared memories of her son and described him as an energetic young man who loved to dance, perform and encourage others.
“He was always trying to reach out for the underdog and reach out to people who weren’t feeling good about themselves,” she recalled. “He believed that our lives were gifts from God — and he believed in the idea that your life is God’s gift to you, and how you live it is your gift to God.”
Mary Jo Prince, a member of the A&M class of 1978, said she thought the film was a chance for the Aggie community and those in the Brazos Valley “to reflect and remember” the tragedy, those who were lost, as well as how supportive Aggies were, in her words, in the hours, days and weeks following the collapse.
“I was working at the Chamber of the Commerce at the time, and I remember going out to the site of the collapse at 2 o’clock that afternoon, and I didn’t leave until the last log was pulled,” Prince said. “I remember [taps] being played. For at least a week, all eyes, arms and ears of the world were wrapped around Texas A&M.”
“We will never forget the 12 who were lost,” Prince said.
Tickets are available now for other showings at Premiere Cinema. Minn said that the film will show at theaters across Texas beginning Nov. 15.
To learn more or to purchase tickets, visit www.13thmanfilm.com/.