Local News

Ocean Isle Honors Fire Victims

Posted November 4, 2007 7:04 a.m. EST
Updated November 4, 2007 7:12 p.m. EST

— The congregation at Ocean Isle Beach Chapel honored the seven college students killed in a beach-house fire last Sunday, a tragedy that worship leaders said "struck at the very heart of our community."

"Today, we come together to pay a special tribute to those beautiful young men and women who lost their lives in the tragedy that struck at the very heart of our community," the first worship leader said.

"It is my prayer that with this service the path to healing begins and that the light our community's love shine brightly and be felt in the hearts of the families and friends of those we honor today."

Last Sunday, an early morning fire at a waterfront beach house killed six students from the University of South Carolina and one from Clemson University – Cassidy Fae Pendley, 18; Lauren Astrid Kristiana Mahon, 18; Justin Michael Anderson, 19; Travis Lane Cale, 19; Allison Walden, 18; William Rhea, 18; and Emily Lauren Yelton, 18.

Firefighter Andy Hamer lit seven candles flanked by USC and Clemson flags as Jane Fox read the names of the seven victims.

No family members of the victims attended, but the congregation held a moment of silence and offered prayers for them. Last Sunday, family members gathered at the chapel, half a mile from the beach house, to wait for news of their loved ones.

Visiting minister Jerry Hannah asked for firefighters, paramedics and other public officials to stand and thanked them for their response to the fire.

"It was amazing and humbling to see how everyone in the community knew their place ... and went to work to help save lives, to encourage the broken-hearted," he said. "I have seen God in each and every person involved."

Ocean Isle Mayor Debbie Smith said Friday the small resort town of about 500 permanent residents was still struggling to cope with the fire.

"In the wake of such devastation, many of us experience an array of complex emotions from deep sadness to feeling powerless, afraid or even isolated," the first worship leader said. "For this reason, it is so important that we join our hearts, our hands, our prayers, and offer a collective voice of comfort to each other and those who grieve."

Hannah urged the congregation to "share love" and "feel the support of each other ... and unity with the Lord, the cement, the glue that holds us together."

He hoped the tragedy would lead people to an "an awakening of how brief life is for all us" and inspire them to "prepare for the afterlife and move with great purpose to our dreams, whatever good we have been called to do in our life."

Flags on the island continued to be flown at half mast to honor the victims Sunday.

A small memorial has appeared outside the house at 1 Scotland Street: a large metal cross with seven smaller ones adorned by bouquets of flowers and stuffed animals from passers-by.

"We're still in mourning, and I imagine we will be for some time," Smith said. "Our hearts are still with the victims and their families. This is certainly a tragedy we hope we never have to deal with again."

Funeral and memorial services were held for three students on Saturday. Anderson was laid to rest in Greenville, S.C., and Cale's funeral took place in Simpsonville, S.C. Hundreds – including six sorority sisters who traveled from South Carolina – attended a memorial service for Walden in Chagrin Falls, Ohio.

Rhea was laid to rest Thursday at First Presbyterian in Florence, S.C. His brother, Andrew, 19, survived the fire.

Services for Mahon and Emily Yelton, the lone Clemson student who died, were held Friday.

Six USC students, including one who jumped from the second floor into a canal, survived the fire.

Investigators said in a preliminary report Friday that it was impossible to uncover a definite cause of the fire, but they speculated improperly discarded smoking materials could have started the blaze. The fire likely started on the back deck, and no other ignition sources – a barbecue grill or a outdoor fireplace – were present.

The North Carolina medical examiner said the students died in their sleep from smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning.

All of the victims were on the second floor. All of the survivors, except one, were on the first floor.