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Legacy of fire: The fiery history of bench burning at Duke, part 3

Meet the A-Team

A-Team stokes a bench bonfire after a Duke basketball win.
A-Team stokes a bench bonfire after a Duke basketball win.

This is part three of a three-part series about the raucous history of Duke students burning benches after major basketball victories, in the lead up to the North Carolina game Feb. 8. Here are part one and part two.

Bench burning at Duke used to be defined by violence, chaos and impromptu fires. 

Today, bonfires are managed by A-Team, a group that was created in the late 1990s, according to Associate Dean of Students Clay Adams.

“The A-Team was developed to support student safety associated with university-wide campus celebrations,” Adams wrote in an email to The Chronicle. “Primarily, we work with postgame bonfire celebrations. Our goal is to support student safety and facilitate a campus-wide community event.”

Faculty, staff and students can serve on A-Team. The Duke Student Government vice president of campus life is responsible for recruiting students to join the team and coordinating their training.

“Historically, the campus life committee has worked hand in hand with the dean of students office to coordinate the bench burning process,” said junior Tommy Hessel, vice president of campus life.

All volunteers must undergo a training program run by the Office of Student Affairs and DSG alongside the Occupational and Environmental Safety Office and its fire safety division. A-Team training covers the logistics of the bonfire, A-Team roles and fire safety expectations, Adams explained.

During the celebration, A-Team members are assigned to different locations. Some may be placed within the bonfire ring or near archways while others are designated “free-floating pairs,” he wrote.

They are also given specific roles, some of which have special names. “Stokers” are responsible for starting the fire, “extinguishers” are in charge of putting out the flames and “roamers” make sure people don’t get too close to the flames, Hessel elaborated.

Adams added that some positions, such as stokers and extinguishers, are only open to student volunteers.

Senior Sanya Kochhar, former vice president of campus life, said that the training prepares volunteers to manage students who may be intoxicated or rowdy. Volunteers are warned “to watch out for people bringing rogue picnic benches and dorm furniture,” according to Kochhar.

Adams noted that it is important for A-Team to communicate its expectations of what is permissible during the event to students. To do this, they print a full-page advertisement in The Chronicle before the game which details safety information, such as what can be burned and the length of the bonfire.

Probably the most important safety precautions occur before the bench burning, including the prep work and communications to students about expectations,” he wrote.

When preparing for the bonfire, A-Team must secure benches to be burned, set up those benches and designate a specific area for the fire. These benches are donated by independent and selective living houses on campus.

A-Team also works closely with the Durham Fire Department, Duke University Police Department and Emergency Medical Services to prepare for the event, Adams wrote. First responders are present on campus to assist A-Team if needed during the bonfire.

On the day of the game, non-student members of A-Team are responsible for monitoring large student gatherings, particularly the pre-game festivities in Krzyzewskiville, Kochhar said.

Later, A-Team members are invited to watch the game in the UCAE office in Few Quad where they are provided dinner, she added. Since volunteers must be in place before the bonfire, they are unable to attend the game in person, Adams explained.

If the Blue Devils win, A-Team members move into position for the celebration. During the bonfire, they “communicate via radio to regulate the number of benches burned, to help ensure a safe environment for the event to take place, and to address situations as needed,” he wrote.

While A-Team members take their jobs seriously, they have fun too during the celebration. 

“Mostly we engage socially with the students and enjoy the spirited songs and chants. Most of the time it’s fun for all involved,” Adams wrote.

Kochhar added that A-Team members are also often asked to take photos of students amid the postgame revelry.

Despite all of A-Team’s preparations, there is no guarantee that benches will be burned. Each year A-Team secures four fire permits from the City of Durham for the men’s and women’s basketball games against North Carolina. However, Kochhar indicated these permits are conditional upon Duke winning and the amount of student participation.

She cited Duke women’s basketball’s win against North Carolina last year as an example of when benches were not burned due to the lack of students present at the event.

“It’s disappointing to see the hype around men’s basketball but not women’s basketball,” she said. “But we can’t burn unless enough students are interested in burning.”

Hessel added that weather conditions can also determine whether or not they burn benches. For example, they are not allowed to hold a bonfire if it is too dry outside.

“The fact that there’s a win doesn’t mean that there’s a burn,” he said.

Legacy of the bonfires

When students are asked to recall memories from the bonfires, they are almost universally positive. Of the alumni The Chronicle spoke with, all praised the bonfire tradition and said that although some students’ nights were affected by the conflict, they were few and far between.

“For the most part, most students would remember those evenings for the fun and the wins,” said Paul Hudson, Trinity ‘94, who served as Duke Student Government president. “Most people didn’t have interactions with Public Safety [now the Duke University Police Department] at all. And for that, I give credit to Public Safety. I don’t think they wanted people to remember the evenings for interaction with Public Safety.”

Some administrators remember the nights differently, however. Paul Bumbalough, who served in a number of dean-level positions in the student life and student development office during the 1990s, noted that it’s difficult for him to dissociate the games from all the chaos he had to deal with afterward.

“It truly has only been in the last few years that I have been able to enjoy watching our games on TV,” he wrote in an email. “Yet even now, I feel a bit of guilt that as the final buzzer sounds and I can turn out the light and go to sleep, I know there are countless individuals about to be put in harm’s way—all by individual and institutional choice.” 

Bumbalough also questioned whether the burnings were consistent with the reputation Duke hopes to create.

“The flaming images created make for some stunning media coverage, but it feels very different for the morning after survivors with broken bones, stitches from a flung beer bottle, scorched skin and hair, not to mention the huge number of student-on-student physical assaults committed,” he wrote. “I’ve always felt this tradition to be greatly at odds with the elite university image we seek to portray. I do not miss any of it.”

However, Dean of Students Sue Wasiolek stressed that bench burnings have grown safer over the years and become a defining tradition of the University.

“The bonfire celebrations have evolved over time into something that highlights the positives within our campus culture; one that celebrates the victories of our student peers and provides a moment of unity and spirit (certainly evidenced in the singing of songs, chants, and Insta-selfies),” she wrote in an email.

For students who have witnessed bench burnings, the experience is a cathartic culmination of pent-up emotion not easily forgotten. 

Hessel recalled that attending his first bonfire in 2018 as a first-year was “super fun” after the men’s team beat UNC at home.

“To see the community that instantly formed around this bench and to see everyone smiling… was one of the highlights of my first year at Duke,” he said.

Doug Chalmers, Trinity ‘86 and Law School ‘95, saw his first bench burning more than 30 years before Hessel would. But despite the time gap, he described a similar awe and excitement at benches going up in flames, coupled with the euphoric cheers from hundreds of onlookers.

“It was one of those things that when you’re in your 50s, like we are now, we still remember that as one of the best nights of our lives,” he said.

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