Students await the identities of 7 killed in N.C. blaze
Investigators say the fire may have ignited on deck
COLUMBIA, S.C. - Students at the University of South Carolina returned to class yesterday morning, many still waiting to learn the names of the classmates who were among seven people killed in a weekend beach house blaze.
The house erupted into a storm of fire and smoke Sunday morning in Ocean Isle Beach, N.C. Six of the seven students killed attended the University of South Carolina; the other attended Clemson University. Six other South Carolina students in the house survived.
Investigators believe the fire was accidental and that it started on a deck, said Mayor Debbie Smith of Ocean Isle Beach.
Though students heard through word of mouth which students survived, the names of the victims had not been officially announced. At the university's Greek village yesterday morning, a garnet and black banner with the school's mascot, a gamecock, flew at half-staff alongside an American flag outside a fraternity house. Two black ribbons were wrapped around the columns of another house.
Kaitlynn Forsyth, 20, a junior and marketing major, said she learned about the fire while studying in the library Sunday night, and quickly went to the Internet to find out more.
"I seriously just sat there. It took everything not to cry," she said. "The more we looked at stuff, my heart just sank. I had to go back to studying to fight off my tears. I just imagine it could have been anybody."
The students had gathered at the house for the weekend to enjoy the fleeting beach weather. All that was left of the structure yesterday was a charred shell. A burned-out car sat in the driveway, cordoned off with police tape.
The fire struck before 7 a.m. and burned completely through the first and second floors, leaving only part of the frame standing. The waterfront house - named Changing Channels - was built on stilts, forcing firefighters to climb a ladder onto the house's deck to reach the first floor.
One witness described seeing three students sitting on the ground screaming as the house burned, and another person jumping from a window into a waterway. Others said the heat was so intense the front door was too hot to open, preventing rescue attempts.
The mayor said investigators told her the fire started on a deck facing a canal on the west side of the charred house. That side of the building appeared to have had the most damage. She said investigators gave no indication of a possible cause.
"They may not be able to determine what started it," Smith said.
She said it could be a couple of days before officials release victims' names. None of the bodies had been positively identified, she said.
The burned house sits on one of a series of peninsulas, all tightly packed with homes, that connect by canals.
Several houses near the burned one were filled with college students.
Officials said the group was staying at a house owned by the parents of one of the students. Many were friends from the Delta Delta Delta sorority and the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, said Dennis Pruitt, the school's dean of students.
Brandon Weghorst, spokesman for the national headquarters of the fraternity, said he believed at least three members were killed in the fire and that Sigma Alpha Epsilon was sending a chaplain to help students in Columbia.
"Anytime you've got one death it's difficult, but multiple deaths can be overwhelming for a chapter," he said. "When a tragedy like that happens, especially to someone who's so young, it makes it more difficult."
Some of the people in the house had been friends since high school, said Rick Wylie of Greenville, who said his son, Tripp, jumped from the burning structure.
"He's in shock," Wylie said. "It's just an incomprehensible thing for these parents."
Ashley Moore, a fashion merchandising senior at South Carolina, said one of her friends was in a sorority with the Clemson student. Her friend sent a message to her Sunday evening asking "to keep her sorority in mind because it was one of her sisters."
"I feel really bad for everybody. It's one of those events that you can't help but feel bad for anyone that's involved," said Moore, of Spartanburg. "You just give your sympathies to everyone involved and be grateful for the friends you have, keep them close."
Officials said grief counselors would be available for South Carolina's 27,000 students.