State News

Ocean Isle still mourns one year after fire

Posted October 28, 2008

— It was a year ago Tuesday that seven South Carolina college students died in a house fire in the worst disaster in the history of a North Carolina beach town.

Twelve University of South Carolina friends and one Clemson University sophomore gathered in Ocean Isle Beach for a weekend getaway to celebrate one of the last warm weekends of the year.

Rebecca Wood, then a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was also in Ocean Isle Beach for a retreat when she met the friends and spent time at the stilted waterfront beach house the night before it burned.

She still has a hard time coping with her memories of the fire.

"This is a tragedy that still brings me to my knees," Wood said Tuesday. "When I think about what it means to witness the final moments in a person's life, I'm overwhelmed with grief and utter confusion."

The fire broke out shortly before 7 a.m. that Sunday and might have been burning as long as 20 minutes before anyone inside realized it, fire officials have said. Six people escaped.

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 inside 1 Scotland St. of carbon monoxide poisoning and smoke inhalation.

"It knocks you down a level," Wood said, remembering how she initially worried the fire would spread to where she was staying and the helplessness that followed.

"You find yourself in the middle of this horrible thing, and you want to do everything you can to help, but you find that you are just not equipped."

That was the beginning of a new set of emotions for Wood, now in her first year of law school at Wake Forest University.

"It sounds cliché to say that I think about it every day, but I really think that I do," she said.

Town officials dedicated a memorial earlier this year – a steel cross inscribed with the students' names at the foot of the bridge to the mainland.

Mayor Debbie Smith said she hopes the memorial has helped bring some closure for the community and the families.

Smith said the town is working to improve fire prevention, especially by educating the thousands of renters who come to the town each year.

Family members of some victims have urged that fire sprinklers be required in large residential structures.

A town commissioner said the physical reminders of the fire are retreating – the house has been demolished and the lot sits empty – but the memory of the tragedy hasn't faded.

"This is a day we will remember forever as a tragedy and a void in our hearts," said Commissioner C.D. Blythe.

The state medical examiner has said alcohol contributed to the deaths of six of the seven students.


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  • Jeremiah Oct 28, 2008

    there's a good chance this would have happened whether they were drunk and underage or drunk and 21+.

  • Heel from Hell Oct 28, 2008

    The fire was most likely caused by not properly extinguishing a cigarette on the deck. Alcohol was certainly a contributor, but this could happen to anybody...even neighbors.

    The wind from the canal at night whips and has a chance to ignite any spark...just do what Smokey the Bear taught you and be diligent with ANYTHING combustible...particularly at the beach where it's dry and houses are built like tinderboxes.

  • Objective Scientist Oct 28, 2008

    Regardless of who it was... gender, age, etc., this was a true tragedy as the loss of life always is. I don't recall, and perhaps never did know all the specifics of this case... but it appears that some college aged individuals, some not of "legal" drinking age, drank that evening. The drinking may have led them to be careless and that caused the fire. The drinking may have incapacitated and prevented those that died from escaping the flames. What is the message here? It is not the lack of sprinkler systems, it is not that "underage" people drank. It is that anytime you drink, regardless of sprinkler systems or age, you lessen reaction time and judgment... and especially if you drink to the point of incapacitation, you put yourself and others at risk. Being over or under the "legal" drinking age matters not. Once judgment is immpaired and/or incapacitation is reached... age matters not. The message that should be being SHOUTED OUT from this incident is DON'T DRINK TO EXCESS!

  • vote4changeASAP Oct 28, 2008

    While I agree that these underage drinkers were partly at fault for their own demise, any one who sleeps hard at 7 am would have died in that fire, because the noxious fumes were more toxic at the upper level where all the victims slept.

    In addition to sprinklers, these type of beach structures should have a fire escape set of stairs because of their height.

  • Myrrdin Oct 28, 2008

    I agree with you on that dan. And everyone else seems to be blaming the lack of a sprinkler system. Lack of alcohol would have prevented more deaths in this case.

    Not saying it wasn't a tragedy, because it was. However, the fact that these were underage drinkers seems to get overlooked in most articles about the fire.

  • Scrofula Oct 28, 2008

    I have a hard time seeing a crowd of underage kids drinking at a beach house with no adult supervision subsequently burning said house down and getting killed in the process as an accident.

    Negligence maybe.