N.C. Beach House Fire Kills 7 Students
Posted October 28, 2007 10:55 a.m. EDT
Updated October 28, 2007 6:45 p.m. EDT
OCEAN ISLE BEACH, N.C. — An early morning fire ravaged a beach house occupied by more than a dozen South Carolina college students, killing seven Sunday and sending several more to a hospital, authorities said.
Mayor Debbie Smith said the six people hospitalized were all treated and released a short time later, include one survivor who jumped from the burning home and into an adjacent waterway. Smith said officials had accounted for everyone believed to be inside.
"There were three kids sitting on the ground screaming," said newspaper deliverer Tim Burns, who called 911 after seeing a column of smoke rising from the house. "There was one guy hanging out the window and he jumped in the canal. I know he got out because he was yelling for a girl to follow him."
Burns said he didn't know if that girl was able to escape.
Smith said that to the best of her knowledge, 12 of the 13 people inside the home were students at the University of South Carolina; the other attended Clemson University. The private home was being used by the owner's daughter and a group of her friends, she said.
"Nothing like this has ever happened at Ocean Isle Beach," Smith said.
The victim's bodies will be taken to the state medical examiner's office in Chapel Hill, and officials said it would be several days before their identities are released. Authorities from the State Bureau of Investigation and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are leading the investigation, said Randy Thompson, Brunswick County's emergency services director.
The fire struck the house on Scotland Street sometime before 7 a.m. and burned completely through the first and second floors, leaving only part of the home's frame standing. The waterfront home is built on stilts, forcing firefighters to climb a ladder onto the house's deck to reach the first living floor. Smith said the house was a total loss.
"We ran down the street to get away," said Nick Cain, a student at the University of North Carolina who was staying at a house about 100 feet away. "The ash and the smoke were coming down on us. We were just trying to get away."
Burns said he had to fight to keep several of those who escaped from the fire from going back inside to try and rescue their friends. When he approached the front door, he said, it was much too hot to open.
"When I was going up to the entry way, you could hear the windows above me explode," Burns said. "When I knew the flames had taken over, I don't think I've ever felt as helpless in my life."
Authorities erected a blue tarp to block the view of the fire scene, but neighbor Bob Alexander said he saw investigators removing bodies from the gutted remains of the home early Sunday afternoon. Family members of some victims who gathered in a chapel across the street from the town hall declined speak with reporters.
"It's terrible to see somebody's children come out of that house this way," Alexander said.
Smith said the home had working smoke detectors, but did not have sprinklers. Thompson said it could be a day or more before investigators pinpoint a cause.
University of South Carolina spokesman Russ McKinney said school officials had been in touch with officials in Ocean Isle Beach and were headed there Sunday afternoon. The university in Columbia, South Carolina, planned a news conference for later in the afternoon.
"I heard somebody hollering 'help.' It was real strong," said neighbor Nell Blanton. "But they were making so much noise last night, I thought they were playing around."
Amy Myers, a spokeswoman for Brunswick Community Hospital, said the hospital received the six injured victims from the fire. All were treated and released, she said.
Ocean Isle Beach is at the far southern end of North Carolina's Atlantic Coast, about 30 miles north of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina Only about 500 people live there year-round, but the town is home to several thousand rental and vacation homes and condos.
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 with the Intracoastal Waterway.
If you have information about the fire or those involved, or if you have photos, please call the WRAL newsroom at (919) 821-8600.