GONZALES — Courtney Laiche tossed down a three-ring binder from his perch atop a 28-foot wooden space shuttle replica he was working on Saturday to break for lunch.

As Laiche climbed down from the structure, about a dozen cousins and friends gathered at the base to talk about their next step in the New Year’s Eve tradition.

Laiche, several of his cousins and friends started building nontraditional bonfires in his parents’ backyard after the 2001 murder of another cousin, Luke Villar.

That first bonfire, built as a way to work through their grief and strengthen family ties, was a teepee style tower similar to the ones constructed on Christmas Eve in St. James Parish.

The next year, things got much more elaborate with the construction of a pirate ship out of logs.

Each year, the cousins get together in November for a camping trip and decide on a design. Over the years, they’ve built a Blackhawk helicopter, FEMA trailer, debris removal truck, bulldozer, guitar, fleur de lis, LSU-themed recreational vehicle and the south end zone of Tiger Stadium.

This year, the camping trip was delayed, so they came up with the space shuttle idea after a few family get-togethers, Cody Duplessis said.

He said they thought the time was right to build the space shuttle after its “termination ... by the president.”

The plans are drawn and kept in a binder throughout the project, which takes eight to 10 days to complete, Laiche said.

The group scouts the area for straight, or almost straight, trees to be used in the construction.

“It’s getting harder and harder every year to find enough logs to build these things,” Duplessis said.

This year’s space shuttle includes “a few special effects to make it look like it’s taking off,” he said. “And, of course, there will be fireworks.”

The structure was built in the launch position with Christmas trees topping each of the fuel rockets.

The LSU football game is played on an outdoor screen and a variety of food is served to the more than 200 people who come out each year.

“It’s kind of grown over the years to more than just family,” Sherry Laiche said. “We’ve got friends and friends of friends showing up to see it burn.”

Chris Duplessis, Cody’s brother, said the construction crew also has grown to include some of their friends.

Dooney Laiche, Courtney’s dad, said he looks forward each year to turning his backyard into a construction site.

“It’s all about family and fun and we’re a big family,” he said.

That big family was busy Monday putting the final touches on the structure. Weather permitting, the bonfire was expected to be lit sometime after 8 p.m.

“We usually go to the wire finishing the last little details,” Chris Duplessis said.

Editor’s note: Due to early holiday deadlines, this story was written Monday before the bonfire was lit.