John Comstock drew a few stares as he sat inside the entrance of Bonfire Memorial on Tuesday, the eve of the 10th anniversary of the collapse.
The 29-year-old opted not to roll his wheelchair down the long, straight path to the main part where the lives of the 12 Aggies killed are commemorated.
It's not that he wasn't interested -- he had been there a few times before and read the tributes.
It wasn't because it'd take him to the exact site where he fell 50 feet from the fourth stack to the ground or even that it reminded him of the seven hours he spent trapped under the twisted logs.
Comstock -- whose injuries were the most critical of the 27 hurt as the six-tiered stack crumbled while under construction early Nov. 18, 1999 -- simply wasn't up to wheeling himself down the path: The pea-sized pebbles that make up the pathway prove to be a difficult surface to navigate when riding a chair with slim rubber tires.
"I was hoping they would have this paved," Comstock said with a smile, recalling how on the first anniversary of the collapse an A&M administrator ended up pushing his wheelchair and commented to Comstock that they needed to see about smoothing out the path for him and others in wheelchairs.
With that, Comstock quickly and easily moved on to his next story.
The fact that Comstock has trouble accessing the memorial bothers him, but it doesn't consume him.
It's that attitude that's brought Comstock to where he is today.
"I can complain, but why?" he asks. "You know, this accident definitely made me wiser -- that's not a word I thought would ever describe me -- but all the traumatic events so far have given me more understanding, made me more honest about life. I've learned to respect things so much more, appreciate people."
The traumas he mentioned aren't solely tied to the university's deadliest disaster, though the numerous surgeries -- he can't remember how many he's had -- and the setbacks in his rehabilitation along the way certainly add up. But Comstock also was referring to the fact that his father died when he was 17 followed, 10 years later by his mother.
"Here's the thing -- these things happened and life goes on," Comstock said. "A lot of people have horrible things happen and you can either let it pin you down or you can take what you can and move on."
For him, there's always been only that last option.
'The doctors were wrong'
University officials had prepared a press release detailing Comstock's death. He was that bad off.
The 2-million-pound structure somehow showed him mercy, though. While he could see three students near him who had died in the collapse, he focused on getting out. His left arm dangled outside the pile and he was able to give a thumbs-up to those asking if he was OK.
College Station Fire Department's Sgt. Paul Gunnels took over talking to Comstock as rescue crews worked to free logs tied with wire.
"It's been so long now -- 10 years," Comstock said as he looked in the direction where stack fell. "I don't dwell on those hours in the stack."
Instead, he jokes about how he remembers the firefighter's face like it was yesterday and was shocked while watching a national news program focusing on the collapse when he learned the rescuer didn't have much hair.
"He had his helmet on, so I didn't know," he said. "Odd what you remember, what you think about later."
Gunnels placed an IV in his arm, gave him oxygen, tucked a hot pack around him and strapped protective gear to his head to keep dirt from getting in his eyes.
Comstock was the last to be pulled alive from the devastation.
He stayed 84 days at College Station Medical Center, where doctors told his mother, Dixie Edwards, that her son likely would die. She had a family motor home driven down from Richardson, then lived in it in the lot at the hospital.
His left leg was amputated from the knee down and his right hand was crushed. He was moved to a hospital closer to their home near Dallas and rehabilitation became part of his daily life.
"Turned out, the doctors were wrong," Comstock said. "I know I'm a medical miracle and probably shouldn't be here."
His mother took him to rehab several times a week once he was released from the hospital. The sessions were painful and often the news wasn't good -- the nerves weren't regenerating as fast as he would have liked.
"It was more difficult for my mom than it was for me," he said. "I was medicated through a lot of my initial pain. She wasn't."
He credits his mother with helping him every step of the way.
"No way would I have made it without her," he said, before mentioning that she died unexpectedly of a stroke more than two years ago.
Fourth time's the charm at A&M
He lived in a guest room on the first floor of his mother's house and was able to take a few junior college classes in Dallas. Along the way, three attempts were made to return to Aggieland.
"Despite what happened to me, I still wanted to be a college kid and have that life. I wanted to be here with my friends and experience all I could as a college student."
Medical problems sent him home the first time with chronic pancreatitis and a grand mal seizure.
"Trust me, I've wanted to give up and say, 'screw it,' but then I come back around and know I have to get this done. I have to get a degree. I want to prove it to myself."
What he realized was that he was trying to do "everything at the same time -- both school and physical therapy, so I didn't do any of it very well."
The second round at A&M, he wasn't serious about studying. The third attempt was going well when his mother passed away.
"It was rough," he said. "She had taken care of me and then this happened."
Overnight, Comstock said he had to become "this responsible person dealing with an estate and getting her house in shape to put on the market." He has an older brother who lives in North Carolina and a younger sister who lives in the Dallas area.
After awhile, he came back to campus for the fourth and what he hopes will be the final time as a student.
Eight months away from his 30th birthday, Comstock now is enrolled in 19 hours of coursework as an agricultural leadership major and plans to graduate in the spring.
He hopes that he will be able to walk across the stage. He's still partially paralyzed on his right side and has a prosthetic leg that he isn't able to use just yet. But, he said, his class load will be light next semester, allowing him time to concentrate on relearning how to walk.
For now, though, he gets up at 6 a.m. and is at class by 8 a.m. three days a week, then digs into his coursework the other days.
"When a future employer asks about my GPA, I'll point out it might not be great at the start of my college career, but look at the last few semesters," he said.
Asked about what hurts these days, Comstock waves the question off and shakes his head, but when pressed he admits to having serious back pain that merely "reminds me I'm alive."
"That's when I'm a grumpy bear -- I'll notice it especially when I become impat