Local News

ATF, SBI Investigate After Beach House Fire Kills 7

Posted October 28, 2007 8:18 p.m. EDT
Updated October 29, 2007 11:32 p.m. EDT

— Federal and state agents plan to investigate what caused a fire at an Ocean Isle Beach house that left seven South Carolina students dead and six more injured.

Authorities said 13 students, including 12 from University of South Carolina, were inside the house at 1 Scotland St. when the fire started just before 7 a.m. Sunday. Six of the deceased are believed to have gone to USC, and the seventh attended Clemson University.

"These are young people in the prime of their life. They had so much to look forward to, and it is just profoundly tragic," USC President Dr. Andrew Soresen said.

It might take two or three days to identify the deceased, Dr. Dennis Pruitt, vice president for student affairs at USC, said. Their bodies were taken to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Chapel Hill.

There was no reason to believe the fire was suspicious, but its origin and cause are still under investigation, Randy Thompson, director Brunswick County Emergency Services, said on Sunday night.

Neighbors said they heard the students partying on Saturday night, but things calmed down hours before the fire broke out shortly before 7 a.m.

Ocean Isle Beach firefighters were on the scene within four minutes of getting the call, but the house was fully engulfed in flames when they arrived. The stilted house faced a canal, along with other houses tightly packed together on a peninsula.

The waterfront house was destroyed, Ocean Isle Mayor Debbie Smith said.

“The whole thing was just up in flames in no time,” neighbor Nell Blanton said. “It was just terribly to look at.”

“You could see and hear the fire. It was really roaring, way up in the sky. The smoke was billowing up towards the ocean,” said another neighbor who witnessed the fire.

Betty Smith, whose home lies across the canal, said she saw the fire racing from floor to floor before it took off the roof.

"I heard things bursting out, and you could almost feel the heat from the fire," she said.

Six people survived the fire, including at least one who jumped from the house to escape the flames. Bystanders said they heard yelling from inside the house.

“I still have cold chills, and I can still hear that guy’s voice hollering for help,” Blanton said.

Jeff Newsome said he and other neighbors saw a man standing at a third-story window and yelled at him to jump. After the man hit the ground, he called back up at the house for a friend. But no one else appeared in the window, Newsome said.

"The noise stopped, which is horrible," Newsome said.

The six survivors were transported to a Brunswick hospital and were treated and released Sunday, Smith said.

Students from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill were staying next door to the beach home, but none were injured in the fire. The members of the Alpha Phi Omega-Rho service fraternity were holding a weekend retreat.

Agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the State Bureau of Investigation will be at the scene Monday morning, along with the county fire marshal, to investigate the origin and cause of the fire. Thompson said an investigation by the ATF is not unusual and that the county fire marshal works closely with the agency.

He declined to speculate where the fire started, but said it did a lot of damage to the upper floors of the house. Smith said the home had working smoke detectors but did not have sprinklers.

"Nothing like this has ever happened at Ocean Isle Beach," she said.

Flags were lowered to half-staff at the USC Greek Village in Columbia. The USC students were members of Delta Delta Delta sorority or Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, Pruitt said.

Students expressed shock at the sudden death of their peers.

"You just never know. One day it could happen to you, but you hope and pray it doesn't," USC student Josh Rivers said.

Sorensen rushed back to campus from an engagement in Washington, D.C., and university officials said they would be offering support and comfort to students.

"We've spent a lot of time (counseling) with the students from the sorority and fraternity," he said. "We encourage any student who is just learning of the situation and is a member of Tri-Delt or SAE to contact their parents and let them know they're OK."

"I think it is incumbent on all of us to respect the grieving and overall sense of sadness that the people who knew these individuals feels," Sorensen said.

The university has activated a counseling network that includes advisers in residence halls. Anyone in the university community who needs help should call the counseling center at 803-777-5223.

A memorial service has not been scheduled, Pruitt said.

"I'm sure the university will plan an appropriate service at an appropriate time," depending on the wishes of family and friends.