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Chapel Hill Fire Marshal: Another Greek Tragedy Could Happen At UNC

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — A deadly fire at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1996 brought about new safety regulations. But, a WRAL investigation has found that fire code enforcement sometimes gets watered down between the town and the university.

On May 12, 1996, a graduation day fire raged through the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity house, killing five UNC-Chapel Hill students.

The tragedy forced change. The town of Chapel Hill passed an ordinance mandating sprinkler systems in every Greek house.

The new Phi Gamma Delta house led the way with all kinds of fire safety improvements. When the deadline to comply with the sprinkler ordinance came last fall, some fraternity houses had to shut down.

Since the deadline, new questions have arisen over whether the town fire laws really have any teeth. The town fire marshal admits, when it comes to fraternity houses, her authority to enforce the law is very limited.

"Should a lot of parents be concerned? Yes, they should. They need to be aware of the situation their child is living in," said Chapel Hill Fire Marshal Caprice Mellon.

Mellon said that all Greek houses are supposed to be inspected at least twice a year.

"We go back in to do the inspections," she said. "We're still finding that the houses aren't being maintained. They're being destroyed."

Records show various violations, such as blocked or unlighted exits, out-of-date fire extinguishers, extension cord overload, and failure to get sprinkler and alarm systems maintained.

"The typical response is they don't have the funds to correct the violations," Mellon said.

Mellon said that instances where houses continue not to comply "happen frequently."

Despite the repeated violations, Mellon said that she cannot force compliance. Because fraternities are classified as residences, she cannot fine them or order them to shut down.

"We're sort of in a Catch-22 situation. We're responsible for conducting the inspections at the houses, but our authority is limited to what we can legally make them do," Mellon said.

The Sigma Phi Epsilon house has not been inspected in almost a year. Mellon said that she has not gotten cooperation from members to set up an inspection.

"We don't know what's going on with this," said Philip Dixon, fraternity president. "We don't know exactly what we need to do and then we're not hearing any word from the town."

A main part of the problem is the sprinkler system at Sigma Phi Epsilon. Although it received town approval in 1999, the sprinkler now looks suspect.

The installer, Simplex Grinnell, has filed suit against general contractor Bud Wilson for non-payment. But, Wilson argued that Grinnell obviously had not finished the job. In the meantime, he is worried about safety.

"I would hesitate to say totally in danger, but I think that there is an uncertain element as to what may happen in the event of a fire," Wilson said.

"The general public is not aware that some things have changed, but some things haven't. Some things have gone backwards," Mellon said.

Mellon said that she is working with the university, the fire chief and the town attorney on enforcement options. However, she worries that unless things change, Chapel Hill could see history repeat itself.

Jay Anhorn, director of UNC Greek Affairs, said that he feels most fraternities and sororities are far more conscious about fire safety than in the past. He said that Greek Affairs can and will levy fines against houses that do not comply with the regulations.