Local News

Fire At Fraternity House Likely Accidental

Posted Updated

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — May 13, 1996 - 7:24 p.m. EDT

Firefighters believe the blaze that killed five students inside a UNC-Chapel Hill fraternity house probably was accidental but are still investigating its causes.

The fire that also injured three others likely started when a cigarette ignited trash in a corner of the basement of the Phi Gamma Delta house, Chapel Hill fire investigators said Monday.

Larry Johnson, Chapel Hill's assistant fire marshal, said that open doors in the basement -- where a party went into the wee hours before commencement exercises Sunday -- helped the fire to spread quickly.

Flowers collected throughout the day at the front of the house, just outside the reach of police tape that kept onlookers at a distance. In an adjacent parking lot, broken beer bottles were the only reminder of the celebration that had taken place at the house before the fire.

Ron Binder, the director of Greek affairs at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said the party at the house Saturday night was planned by parents of the fraternity brothers. Binder said he did not believe the party and drinking contributed to the blaze.

The fraternity was disciplined by its national office in December for boasting in a letter that its parties attracted drunken women who were easy sexual targets.

Meanwhile, relatives and friends mourned the loss of loved ones as the depth of the tragedy began to sink in at the house, located adjacent to the campus.

"I couldn't come here yesterday,'' Bryan Smith, who graduated Sunday from UNC-Chapel Hill. He came by the brick shell of the house on Monday. "It was quite a bittersweet day yesterday.''

Smith knew Joanna Howell, one of the five victims of the fatal fire identified by UNC officials on Monday. He remembered Howell, a member of Pi Beta Phi sorority, as down-to-earth and genuine.

"She would always take the time to stop and come over and see how you were doing,'' Smith said. ``It was refreshing to know someone like that.''

Howell was from Cary. Also killed were Mark Briggs Strickland, Anne McBride Smith and Robert Joshua Weaver, all from Rocky Mount, and Benjamin Watson Woodruff, 20, of Raleigh. The ages of the other victims were not available from the school.

The three male students killed were Phi Gamma Delta members.

All three victims from Rocky Mount were students leaders in high school: Strickland and Weaver graduated from Rocky Mount Academy, while McBride graduated from Northern Nash High School. Weaver was salutatorian his senior year at Rocky Mount Academy, while Strickland was class president.

"They were the kind of guys that would have contributed things to society as adults and helped other people,'' said Paul Proctor, assistant principal at Rocky Mount Academy.

Few details of the fire became known on Monday, with investigators remaining tightlipped at a brief news conference. The Chapel Hill Fire Department did not return a call late Monday seeking additional details.

But it became apparent firefighters had little time to respond before the house was an inferno.

Percy Jessup, a Fayetteville dentist, was among the first to see the roaring blaze. He ran from his room at the Carolina Inn as fire trucks were arriving just after 6 a.m.

"That place was like a chimney,'' Jessup said. "There was a boy in shock sitting on the curb. There was a kid in a blanket who was pretty hysterical. I don't think these people even knew what even happened."

Jessup said the blaze was overwhelming.

"You couldn't even get close to it. It was pouring smoke and fire,'' he said. "I don't think the firemen could have done anything different. People died and it was crazy.''

Funeral arrangements for four of the victims had been made by Monday.

Smith will be buried Wednesday at 2 p.m. at First Presbyterian Church in Rocky Mount; Strickland, on Tuesday at 11 a.m. at Lakeside Baptist Church in Rocky Mount; Woodruff, on Wednesday at 10 a.m. at St. Michael's Episcopal Church in Raleigh. A memorial service will be held for Weaver Tuesday at 2 p.m. at First United Methodist Church in Rocky Mount.

Two of the injured students, Ben Eubanks and Anne Glenn, remain in UNC Hospitals. Glenn is in critical condition; Eubanks is in serious condition.

Adam Jones, a junior from Atlanta, was released from the hospital on Monday.

Copyright 2024 by Capitol Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.