State News

Beach House Survivor Recalls Waking up to Flames, Smoke

Posted October 30, 2007
Updated October 31, 2007

— Fallon Sposato awoke to a blaring alarm and smoke seeping into the bedroom of the beach house where she and 12 friends had been partying just hours earlier.

Her lungs and eyes were burning. The inside of the house glowed orange as she ran down a staircase near her first-floor room.

Sposato was sure, as flames engulfed the Ocean Isle Beach, North Carolina, behind her, that her friends were already outside.

"And then nobody else was out yet," the 19-year-old University of South Carolina sophomore recalled during an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday.

Seven college students died Sunday morning in the fire at the beach house - six from the University of South Carolina, and a seventh from Clemson University. Six others made it outside, into the arms of neighbors and rescue workers.

"We were all hysterical. They were holding us back, trying to get our friends," said Sposato, an Orlando, Florida, native.

Many of the 13 students staying at the house were members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity and Delta Delta Delta sorority, and some had attended high school in Greenville together. On Tuesday, officials in Ocean Isle Beach officially identified those killed in the fire: Cassidy Fae Pendley, 18; Lauren Astrid Kristiana Mahon, 18; Justin Michael Anderson, 19; Travis Lane Cale, 19; Allison Walden, 18; William Rhea, 18; Emily Lauren Yelton, 18.

Sposato, a Delta Delta Delta member, said she and Walden, her roommate and sorority sister, joined the weekend getaway after scrubbing a trip to Ohio State. They picked the location closer to home, Sposato said, so that the sorority members could be back on campus for initiation activities late Sunday afternoon.

"Everybody just kind of needed a break from Columbia," Sposato said.

The students caravanned up to the resort town after classes Friday, listening to music and swimming in a canal behind the house, which was on stilts. On Saturday, the group went out to lunch and watched the University of Georgia-University of Florida game before grilling food on a patio under the house and getting ready to watch the University of South Carolina Gamecocks take on the Tennessee Volunteers.

"We just had a good time," Sposato said. Students were drinking alcohol at the house but she said no illegal drugs were ever present. "We were just hanging out and listening to music."

The group caroused into the early morning hours, drinking and hanging out on the home's back deck. Sposato said she was the first to go to bed, turning in at 4:30 a.m. just after calling her father to report she'd lost her camera.

Several hours later, Sposato and her boyfriend awoke to the alarms, flames and smoke. Called by neighbors who saw the flames, emergency personnel were pulling up when she got out of the house, Sposato said. Several hours later, Sposato would learn her roommate was among the dead.

Another student who made it out of the burning house told ABC's "Good Morning America" Tuesday that he made the decision to jump into the canal behind the house to escape his smoke-filled upper-floor room.

"You knew you had to jump at some point; that was the only option," Tripp Wylie said on the show.

Debbie Smith, mayor of the resort community, has said investigators believe the fire was likely accidental and started in the rear of the house, either on or near a deck facing a canal. That side of the home appeared to be the most heavily damaged. Most of the victims were found in the home's five bedrooms.

Smith said Tuesday police would remain at the house through the night and expected that fire investigators might release it to the owners on Wednesday.

Randy Thompson, the director of emergency services in Brunswick County, said local officials hope to receive an initial report from state investigators on Friday. Officials in Ocean Isle Beach have said the don't expect any news on a possible cause until reviewing that and other initial reports.

To anyone who's written off the fire as a result of careless underage drinking and youthful irresponsibility, Sposato said that simply isn't the case.

"These are the most responsible of all of my friends," she said. "This group was a solid group, and that's why it's just so unreal that this would happen."

For now, Sposato said, all she and the other survivors can do is tell the story of the friends they lost. Besides Sposato and Wylie, those who made it out of the house are: Eugene Ray Charles, 19; Katherine Elizabeth Auman, 21; Ashley Nicole Perdue, 18; and Andrew Edward Rhea, 19.

"It's just very unreal. It's going to be hard for the six of us, because we lost seven of our closest friends," Sposato said, holding back tears. "But I guess we just have to keep going, and I think that's the hardest part."