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Ten Years After UNC Frat House Fire, Safety Concerns Remain

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — All fraternity and sorority houses at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill now have sprinklers and are inspected twice a year. And each Greek house has its own student fire marshal.

The changes came after an early-morning fire on graduation day and Mother's Day -- May 12, 1996 -- at the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity house caught fire at the university killed five people.

In terms of safety, Chapel Hill Fire Chief Caprice Mellon said the fire-safety measures are better now than they were 10 years ago, but that they are not quite where she wants them to be.

The Phi Gamma Delta house has since been rebuilt and safety-equipped, including two stairwells on both ends of the house that are shut off, according to Sam Heathcote, who serves as the house's fire marshal. There are also fireproof doors.

But Mellon said she feels there is complacency about fire safety in houses, saying no student currently on campus even remembers the fire or the five people who died.

Some people tell WRAL that people at some fraternity parties put Styrofoam cups over smoke detectors to keep them from going off. But Heathcote said not at his fraternity house.

"Not anymore," he said. "It's more, people if they're smoking will go outside."

Investigators determined cigarettes in a trashcan sparked the 1996 fire. Three of the students killed -- Mark Strickland, Josh Weaver, and Ben Woodruff -- were fraternity brothers. Two women were also killed: Joanna Howell and Anne Smith.

A plaque hangs inside the house in their memory.

"It's definitely something we learn from every day," Heathcote said.


Scott Mason, Reporter
Greg Clark, Photographer
Kelly Gardner, Web Editor

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