Video: 7 students die in beach house blaze

updated 10/29/2007 12:47:34 AM ET 2007-10-29T04:47:34

An intense fire ravaged a beach house packed with more than a dozen college students early Sunday, killing seven and leaving little left of the structure but its charred frame and the stilts on which it stood.

Six survivors were hospitalized and released, including one who jumped from the burning home and into a waterway, Mayor Debbie Smith said. The cause was being investigated.

"There were three kids sitting on the ground screaming," said newspaper deliverer Tim Burns, who called 911 after seeing a column of smoke rising from the house. "There was one guy hanging out the window, and he jumped in the canal. I know he got out because he was yelling for a girl to follow him."

Burns said he didn't know whether that girl was able to escape.

Schools grieve
Officials at the University of South Carolina said six of the students who died were from the school in Columbia; the seventh attended Clemson University. The six who survived were also from USC. The private home was being used by the owner's daughter and a group of her friends, Smith said.

"These are young people in the prime of their life," USC President Andrew Sorensen said at a news conference. "They had so much to look forward to, and it's just profoundly tragic."

Students will have access to counselors, residence hall advisers and clergy members, Sorensen said. Classes will be held Monday.

Dennis Pruitt, dean of students, said the fire appears to have affected two Greek organizations — the Delta Delta Delta sorority and the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. Earlier in the day, a campus minister at the sorority house declined to comment, as did an adult who answered the door at the fraternity house.

Michelle Shimberg, national president of Delta Delta Delta, said in a statement that the sorority's members were "devastated with the news of this tragedy and are doing everything we can to learn the facts about what occurred."

The fire struck sometime before 7 a.m. and burned completely through the first and second floors, leaving only part of the frame standing. The waterfront home — named "Changing Channels" — was built on stilts, forcing firefighters to climb a ladder onto the house's deck to reach the first living floor.

"We ran down the street to get away," said Nick Cain, a student at the University of North Carolina who was staying at a house about 100 feet away. "The ash and the smoke were coming down on us. We were just trying to get away."

Cain was one of the dozens of college students who filled at least four houses within a block of the burned home. Neighbor Jeff Newsome said the students were going back and forth between the houses all weekend long.

"We didn't have any big complaints," Newsome said. "The lights were on all night. They were having a good time."

Flames impede rescue efforts
Winds blowing flames over the water, and not toward any of the other residences on the tightly packed row of vacation homes, kept the fire from spreading. The intense heat kept Burns and others from attempting a rescue, although he said he had to fight to keep several of those who escaped from trying. When he approached the front door, he said, it was too hot to open.

"When I was going up to the entryway, you could hear the windows above me explode," Burns said. "When I knew the flames had taken over, I don't think I've ever felt as helpless in my life."

Some of the people in the house had been friends since high school, said Rick Wylie of Greenville, S.C., who identified his son Tripp as the young man who jumped from the burning home.

"He's in shock," Wylie said. "It's just an incomprehensible thing for these parents."

Authorities erected a blue tarp to block the view of the fire scene, but neighbor Bob Alexander said he saw investigators removing bodies from the remnants of the home early Sunday afternoon.

"It's terrible to see somebody's children come out of that house this way," Alexander said.

Image: Burned beach house
Randall Hill  /  The Sun News
A firefighter looks over the scorched remains of a beach house in the resort town of Ocean Isle Beach, N.C., on Sunday.
Rebecca Wood, president of Alpha Phi Omega service fraternity at UNC Chapel Hill, said she and about 35 other students were staying at two houses nearby and had befriended the USC students. Wood was at the home that burned as late as 1:30 a.m. Sunday, hours before the blaze struck, she said.

"I think right now most of our kids are just really shocked," said Wood, a senior. "That's something that you never expect to happen _ and then to stand and watch it happen is just horrific."

Authorities from the State Bureau of Investigation and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are leading the investigation, said Randy Thompson, Brunswick County's emergency services director.

The home had working smoke detectors, Smith said.

Ocean Isle Beach is at the southern end of North Carolina's Atlantic Coast, about 30 miles north of Myrtle Beach, S.C. Only about 500 people live there year-round, but the town is home to several thousand rental and vacation homes and condos.

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