Local News

911 Caller Doubted Anyone Was Alive in Ocean Isle Fire

Posted October 29, 2007 5:39 a.m. EDT
Updated October 30, 2007 12:56 p.m. EDT

— Flames engulfed an Ocean Isle Beach vacation home early Sunday morning, and black smoke rose above other houses, witnesses said in 911 calls released late Monday afternoon.

"The entire house is completely and 100 percent in flames, right now," one caller said. "If anyone is in that house, I doubt if they are alive at this point."

Flames broke out on the upper floor of the beach house at 1 Scotland St. at about 7 a.m. Sunday, killing six University of South Carolina students and one Clemson University student and injuring six others.

"It's burning really badly. You can hear people yelling at people at the house," another caller said.

Ocean Isle Mayor Debbie Smith said investigators told her the fire was likely accidental and started either on or near a deck facing a canal on the west side of the house. That side of the building appeared to have suffered the most damage.

Earlier Monday, she had said the fire started on the deck.

"They may not be able to determine what started it," Smith said.

The students had gathered at the home for the weekend to enjoy the fleeting beach weather. All that was left of the home Monday was a charred shell, and a burned-out car sat in the driveway, cordoned off with police tape.

Fire Chief Robert Yoho said most of the victims were found in the home's bedrooms. The only person on the top floor who survived did so by jumping out of a window and into the adjacent canal, he said.

The burned home sits on one of a series of peninsulas, all tightly packed with homes, that are about two blocks from the beach and connect by canals. Several houses near the one that burned were filled with college students.

Officials said the group was staying at a house owned by the parents of one of the students. Many were friends from the Delta Delta Delta sorority and the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, said Dennis Pruitt, the dean of students at USC.

Victims' Families Speak as USC Mourns

Although authorities have yet to release the names of the victims, family members spoke to The Associated Press Monday about the fire and the lives it took.

"It sounded like they were having a good time. Unfortunately, the fire didn't show any mercy," said Terry Walden, who said his 19-year-old daughter, Allison, died in the blaze. "They probably never woke up."

Anna Lee Rhea said her older brother, William, was among the dead – a devastating blow to their older brother, Andrew, who made it out of the house alive.

"Everybody loved him. Everybody really misses him," she said in a brief telephone interview from the family's home in Florence, S.C. "You couldn't help but love him."

In an interview from Chagrin Falls, Ohio, Walden said his daughter picked USC for its warm weather and vibrant Greek life.

"It's an awful loss for someone that had a pretty good future in front of her," Walden said.

Meanwhile, students heard through word of mouth on the USC campus who survived. Authorities said it could be several more days before they make the victims' identities public.

Classes went on as scheduled, but a garnet and black banner with the school's mascot, a Gamecock, flew at half-staff alongside an American flag outside a fraternity house. Two black ribbons were wrapped around the columns of another house.

During a news conference Monday afternoon, Delta Delta Delta and Sigma Alpha Epsilon leaders thanked the community for its outpouring of support and said their groups were doing everything they can for members.

Jay Laura, president of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, said his thoughts are dominated by grief but that he believes those who died are now in a better place.

"It helps to know that those who have been lost are now in a better place, free from the pain and strife from this sometimes-cruel world," he said. "And it is with a heavy heart that I pray for their families and loved ones."

Pruitt said Monday that a formal memorial service was possible at the end of the week or early next week, but an informal gathering and was scheduled for Monday evening with a candle light vigil expected to follow.

Grief counselors were also on hand and the university activated a counseling network for those coping with the tragedy.

Brandon Weghorst, spokesman for the national headquarters of the fraternity, said he believed at least three members were killed in the fire and that Sigma Alpha Epsilon was sending a chaplain to help students in Columbia.

"Any time you've got one death it's difficult, but multiple deaths can be overwhelming for a chapter," he said. "When a tragedy like that happens, especially to someone who's so young, it makes it more difficult."

Some of the people in the house had been friends since high school, said Rick Wylie of Greenville, who said his son Tripp jumped from the burning home.

"He's in shock," Wylie said. "It's just an incomprehensible thing for these parents."

Ashley Moore, a fashion merchandising senior at South Carolina, said one of her friends was in a sorority with the Clemson student. Her friend sent a message to her Sunday evening asking "to keep her sorority in mind because it was one of her sisters."

"I feel really bad for everybody. It's one of those events that you can't help but feel bad for anyone that's involved," said Moore, of Spartanburg. "You just give your sympathies to everyone involved and be grateful for the friends you have, keep them close."

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford asked residents there to pray for the victims, calling their deaths "an incredible loss, made all the more tragic by the fact that they died at such a young age when they had their entire lives ahead of them."