Chapel Hill, N.C. — The fire that killed seven college students at Ocean Isle Beach on Sunday brought painful memories of a tragedy 11 years ago at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The Phi Gamma Delta fraternity house caught fire on May 12, 1996, killing five people and injuring three.
“It rocked my soul. It rocked my whole body,” said Bonnie Woodruff, who lost her son, Ben, in the Mother's Day fire.
Her son's death became a rallying cry for Woodruff, who understands the loss suffered at the coast.
“My heart goes out to those parents, because unless you've been through it, you don't really understand what journey they're going to be on,” she said. "I just know that the pain, the shock, the devastation is so real. The only advice that I could offer would be to hang on. Hang on for the ride of your life, and just do what you can to take care of yourself day after day."
The pain from losing her son turned Woodruff into a fire safety activist. She lobbied for all buildings in North Carolina to have fire sprinklers.
"There has never been multiple deaths in North America in a building that has been sprinklered," Woodruff said.
She said every fraternity and sorority house at UNC now has sprinkler systems.
The Phi Gamma Delta house was rebuilt and safety-equipped, including two stairwells on both ends of the house that are shut off. There are also fireproof doors.
Investigators determined cigarettes in a trashcan sparked the Phi Gamma Delta fire. Three of the students killed – Mark Strickland, Josh Weaver, and Ben Woodruff – were fraternity brothers. Two women – Joanna Howell and Anne Smith – also died in the fire.
A plaque hangs inside the house in their memory.