New Facts In Bonfire Tragedy

In possible violation of school rules, a Texas A&M student was operating one of the two cranes used to build the university's bonfire pile when the logs collapsed last month, killing 12 people.

No evidence suggests that crane operation was a factor in the Nov. 18 collapse. However, written rules governing the 90-year-old A&M tradition say only professionals should operate the cranes.

Leo E. Linbeck Jr., a construction company executive leading an investigation into the accident, told The Dallas Morning News the fact that a student operated a crane does not automatically indicate a safety lapse.

The five-member investigative committee's first meeting was scheduled for Friday.

The university's "Bonfire Safety Handbook" says only professionals should operate the cranes to prevent logs from swinging into or falling on the stack.

Police reports list one crane operator as a professional and the other, who was operating a crane the university had rented, as Michael Rusek, a 24-year-old engineering technology student.

Rusek declined comment Thursday.

A statement he gave police said: "Was operating crane on S. side of stack. Had just picked up log from SW side of stack. Picked log up, I heard a loud cracking & popping & saw stack falling towards my crane. I jumped out and then set the log down & turned the machine off. The logs fell through the front windshield and landed on roof."

A&M's associate vice president for student affairs, Bill Kibler, said he had too little information to know whether it was a safety violation.

"The safety handbook calls for a 'professional operator.' It doesn't say `licensed,'" Kibler said.

An A&M spokesman told the Morning News that Rusek had 200 hours of experience, sufficient to satisfy federal requirements for operating the equipment.