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Greek Tragedy Does Not Translate to Improved Fire Safety for UNC Fraternities, Sororities

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — April 23, 2000

Two out of three fraternities and sororities at

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

do not meet fire safety standards.

It is hard for anyone who was living in the area to forget the fatal fire four years ago that killed students in a fraternity house on campus, but it seems to some like the lessons learned as a result of that Greek tragedy have been lost.

In May 1996, a cigarette sparked the fire that killed five students at the Phi Gamma Delta house. The graduation day blaze raised questions about fire safety at UNC's Greek houses.

Four years later, 22 of 33 Carolina fraternities and sororities have racked up infractions during spring fire inspections.

Chapel Hill Fire Chief Caprice Mellon says the infractions include "fire extinguishers that had been discharged [and] need to be recharged or serviced, smoke detectors in some cases that didn't work."

Mellon says she will never forget the fraternity fire in May 1996.

"I remember going up to the second floor and stepping over something that I wasn't sure what I was stepping over and then only later did it dawn on me that I was stepping over a person, but the body was burned so badly I didn't recognize it," she says.

UNC officials say that the average number of infractions per chapter is down. Officials say four years ago -- at the time of the fire -- there were 10 violations per chapter; now there are about three per chapter. They say even that number may be inflated because one house had 16 infractions.

UNC officials also point out that 11 houses earned perfect scores.

"It's very difficult to get a perfect score for anything in the town of Chapel Hill or anywhere," says Ron Binder, the director of Greek Affairs. "The groups do however have to correct all the violations within 20 days."

Many of the violations still are not corrected.

Sororities and fraternities can be penalized by the Chapel Hill Fire Department and the university if the houses are not in compliance.

Ten days following the initial inspection, the fire department visits the house again. If the violation is not fixed, the department gives the house members another 10 days to fix it. If the house is not without the violation on the next visit, the fire department charges the house a $25 fee.

The university charges about $50 per violation. The students are also receiving $100 if the house passes perfectly. Sometimes the money goes to the local chapter. Sometimes it goes to the house's fire marshal as an incentive.

After the fire four years ago, UNC also mandated that each chapter install a sprinkler system by the fall of 2001. About half of the chapters have done so already. Officials believe all of the chapters will be in compliance by the time the deadline arrives.

The university is making information about fire code violations available to parents by mailing it home and by posting it on the Office of Greek Affairs'

Web site


Officials say fire safety education and training are better than four years ago and that students are required to do mandatory drills, as well.

There are roughly 1,700 reported fires every year in college classrooms, dormitories, fraternities and sororities across the nation. In dorms, the number one cause is arson, followed by cooking and smoking. Half of the campus fires that kill someone also involve alcohol.

Reporter: Stephanie Hawco

Photographer: Jim Young


Julie Moos, Web Editor

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