Local News

Fatal Fire's Exact Cause Can't Be Determined

Posted November 2, 2007
Updated November 4, 2007

— A fatal fire that killed seven South Carolina college students at an Ocean Isle Beach house likely started on the back deck, but the exact cause has not been determined, Mayor Debbie Smith said Friday.

Because of the extensive damage, it was impossible for investigators to uncover a definite cause, but they speculated that the blaze could have started from improperly discarded smoking materials, Smith said. She read from a report prepared by the State Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

"There has been absolutely no indication that the fire was intentionally set," Smith said.

Smith said investigators ruled out other sources, including the house's barbecue grill and outdoor fireplace.

"There have been no reports of any other sources of ignition within that area that could have served as a possible ignition source of the fire," she said.

Cassidy Fae Pendley, 18; Lauren Astrid Kristiana Mahon, 18; Justin Michael Anderson, 19; Travis Lane Cale, 19; Allison Walden, 18; William Rhea, 18; and Emily Lauren Yelton, 18, died in the Oct. 28, 2007, house blaze early Sunday morning at 1 Scotland St.

Six other students escaped the fire. All of the victims except Yelton were University of South Carolina students vacationing for the weekend. Yelton was a Clemson University student.

The North Carolina medical examiner said they died in their sleep from smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning.

Friday's preliminary report – the final report isn't expected to be released for several more weeks – also indicated survivors told investigators the house had smoke detectors and that they did activate, but it did not say how many alarms there were or where they were in the house.

All of the victims were on the second floor. All of the survivors, except one, were on the first floor.

Meanwhile Friday, President George W. Bush, in South Carolina for a political fundraiser, expressed his condolences and sympathies.

"I know people are hurting when they think about the seven youngsters who had so much hope in their lives and had their life taken during that fire," Bush said. "I hope the families and loved ones can take comfort that in this great state and around the nation there's a lot of people praying for them."

Services for Mahon and Yelton were held in South Carolina. Services for Walden, Cale and Anderson were scheduled for Saturday and for Pendley on Monday. Rhea's funeral was Thursday.

The University of South Carolina planned to hold a memorial service Wednesday at a campus theater to honor the students.

"Since learning the tragic news, students have been holding vigils and informal gatherings to express their grief," said Dennis Pruitt, the university's vice president for student affairs. "This ceremony will allow their families and the entire university community to come together to remember and celebrate the lives of these promising young people."

At the site of the fire, the charred structure and its property – deemed unsafe – were fenced off. In front stood a large metal cross with seven smaller ones adorned by bouquets of flowers and stuffed animals from passers-by.

Smith said Friday the community was still coping with the fire, which brought national attention to the small resort town of about 500 permanent residents and several thousand rental and vacation homes.

"We're still in mourning, and I imagine we will be for some time," she said. "Our hearts are still with the victims and their families. This is certainly a tragedy we hope we never have to deal with again."

The community has planned a special service to honor the victims Sunday morning at the Ocean Isle Beach Chapel, where families and friends gathered last week to receive news about their loved ones.


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  • LocalYokel Nov 3, 2007

    stupid cigarettes. Most of the time they kill you slow but sometimes they kill you fast. They don't just hurt you they hurt the people around you too.

  • Jh5230 Nov 2, 2007

    If some of you commenting on the survivor would read my earlier post, you would see what he said about waking up. He has no idea why he woke up, he's an early riser normally and just woke up on his own, not for any particular reason. He said that he acted quickly to get out, ripped off the blinds, looked out the window and heard one of his friends yelling for him to jump, he looked to the side and saw that the fire was closing in on him, it had already engulfed the room next to his, so he jumped quickly and by the time he came up out of the water and looked up, his window was engulfed in flames, he did not feel as though he should have survived, but thankfully he did.

  • hussy Nov 2, 2007

    Like so many others, my family and I have been mourning the loss of these young adults.....their families and friends....... let's face it...it doesn't matter what the details are...the fact still remains we lost them... all of them so full of goodness and promise...

    Regardless of speculation....they were probable of giving so much back...... Let's just rejoice in the gifts they gave to those they touched in their short lives on earth and do all we can to support those they leave behind that will from here after never be able to enjoy life again as we know it.....

  • bcc Nov 2, 2007

    Good post air biscuit. We are all saddened by this tragic event, losing these kids at the peak of their lives. I think you jumped the gun on the alcohol thing. I haven't seen any reports pointing to this. Some kids are sober you know.

  • Air Biscuit Nov 2, 2007

    To all who have read my posts--

    My apologies for any harm or hurt I caused with my comments. This is truly a sad, tragic event.

    I can not describe how I , like so many others, am so heartbroken over this.

    I was too quick to make judgement about alcohol. After looking at the video of the fire, I had second thoughts...the wind had that fire out of control quickly.

    Again, I apologize to anyone I offended.

  • Air Biscuit Nov 2, 2007


    You're right! I should not begin my comments with a false disclaimer...point taken.

    Having said that, I will come right out and say it... these deaths could have been prevented. It breaks my heart that these kids had to die a senseless death. I teach high school, and I see it constantly...we try so hard to tell kids the dangers of alcohol...Mr. DukeMoney, these deaths might have been prevented if the underaged students had not been drinking.

    So yes, I am making a judgement.

    I am so angry and heartbroken because of this senseless tragedy. I'm really sorry that my comments offend people...I really mean no harm, and I grieve with this family.

    I have been a victim of a dear friend who died in an alcohol-related death, and it rips you apart inside...especially when it could have been prevented.

  • xxxxxxxxxxxxx Nov 2, 2007

    Didn't I read previously that the person who jumped was on the third floor? Is it possible that the smoke and fumes hadn't reached him yet? Or maybe he was a light sleeper, or some combination of both.

  • juneyafan Nov 2, 2007

    A person with common sense would realize that maybe he got up to go to the bathroom or maybe he and his roomate were awake when they realized there was a fire. But then again maybe some cannot realize that.

  • fyiarp Nov 2, 2007

    You know, it's possible the survivor who jumped couldn't reach the others and was blocked off by the fire, or smoke even. I think some people underestimate how thick the smoke can get, and how intense the heat. The place clearly burned quickly, and it's often windy near the beach. I think it's in poor taste to even hint that the deceased are to blame for their own deaths, because they may have been drinking the night before.

  • DukeMoney Nov 2, 2007

    When people start out with a comment like, "I'm not a racist...," they almost always come out immediately with a racist comment. When people start out with a comment like, "I'm not judging anyone....," they almost always continue on doing exactly that.

    So Air Biscuit, quit wasting our time with the transparent disclaimers.