Annual bonfire bolsters Pitt pride

Pitt likes its fire. Whether it’s a small flame flickering in a lantern held by a first-year student at lantern night or a roaring bonfire lighting up the Cathedral Lawn, both these traditions are cornerstones of the Pitt experience. Last night’s annual bonfire and pep rally, sponsored by Pitt Program Council, is one of those traditions — one which Pitt students await to kick off the year ahead.

“There is something really special about coming together as a community to support our football team,” senior Amy Huynh said about her third time attending the bonfire and pep rally. “I think having rituals like lighting the bonfire, having these cheers — even though they can seem kind of silly — it’s kind of nice that we have them.”

The bonfire and pep rally is a celebration of Pitt football and, more generally, Pitt pride — the kind that radiates from students tossing their classmates in the air after a touchdown in Heinz Field, or swaying with their peers and singing “Sweet Caroline.”

Students stand around Thursday night’s bonfire, laughing. (Photo by Kaycee Orwig | Staff Photographer)

Many students attended to get excited for Pitt football’s first game against Albany at 3:30 p.m., but others came for the classic event draw — free T-shirts.

“I came for the free shirt,” senior Mark Michalko said.

Michalko, an actuarial mathematics major, said he also likes the chants and cheers.

“[They] build up the Pitt pride inside of me,” he said.

For first-year students, the bonfire signified more than the start of another semester — it kicked off the beginning of their time as a Pitt student, their introduction to the traditions that will grow to shape their experiences here.

Joseph Tonecha, a first-year electrical engineering student, expressed his excitement for the year ahead.

“[The football captains] seemed super excited and full of pride for the team,” Tonecha said. “I don’t follow the Pitt Panthers that much, but I have confidence that they’ll win.”

Pitt’s football team cheers at the fall sports season opening pep rally and bonfire Thursday night. (Photo by Kaycee Orwig | Staff Photographer)

The event began around 8:20 p.m. with the release of the highly anticipated tees for students who came early. Students flooded the lawn on the east side of the Cathedral of Learning while the marching band paraded from Bellefield Street down Fifth Avenue, across Bigelow Boulevard and behind the Cathedral. Pitt cheerleaders danced to a montage of pop hits, including Kendrick Lamar’s 2018 single “HUMBLE.”

Like the music and performances, the bonfire takes precise planning and coordination, and behind the magic is Zambelli’s Fireworks — a fireworks company based in Newcastle and founded in Naples, Italy, in 1893. Bill Gallentine, an engineer with Zambelli’s, was at the event to oversee the pyrotechnics.

“When they flip the switch and the lights go up to the top, they’ll fire the show,” Gallentine said, pointing to a small black control box operated by a key and a switch. “And then you’ll just stand and watch — 33 seconds.”

Gallentine came to Oakland a few hours early to set up the bonfire, which included pallets, fireworks and kerosene alike.

“I have everything wired to go in sequence,” he said. “And I have blue and yellow [close-proximity fireworks] throughout and bags of kerosene on top of them.”

When the fireworks finally went off and the bonfire got started, the band played some of Pitt students’ favorite songs. Students danced and a group of Pitt cheerleaders got the crowd excited about the upcoming football game.

Huynh stood around the bonfire after it died down and reflected on her time at Pitt.

“I think especially as a senior and graduating, knowing that I’m going to have to leave this community makes me appreciate that it’s available right now,” Huynh said. “It’s just really exciting to get caught up in the wave of energy with everyone, but I feel like as a senior I know what to expect now, I can look at it from a different perspective.”