State News

Student victims of beach house fire remembered

Posted May 16, 2008 9:53 a.m. EDT
Updated May 17, 2008 11:04 a.m. EDT

— Looking out from the Intracoastal Waterway separating the North Carolina mainland and Ocean Isle Beach, it's hard to imagine anything bad could ever happen in the small resort town.

It's a calming place, from a distance, that seems like it would be free of tragedy. And that makes it difficult to understand that seven South Carolina college students perished in a beach house fire there last October.

Cassidy Fae Pendley, 18; Lauren Astrid Mahon, 18; Justin Michael Anderson, 19; Travis Lane Cale, 19; Allison Walden, 18; William Rhea, 18; and Emily Lauren Yelton, 18, died in their sleep inside 1 Scotland St. on Oct. 28.

About 80 of their family members and friends – and some emergency workers – gathered Friday afternoon at the base of the Odell Williamson Bridge for a private ceremony dedicating a memorial in honor of the young lives.

Bagpipes played "Amazing Grace," and those in attendance shared memories of their loved ones.

The memorial sits in a grove of oak trees. A steel cross – the same one that sat in front of the fire site for months – stands over a granite marker inscribed with the names of the victims and the phrase "friends together forever."

"I don't know, it's like a last way of saying goodbye, I think," Mahon's mother, Kaaren Mann, said afterward. "I like the idea of her being at rest somewhere, and I've never kind of come entirely to terms with how she died."

The state medical examiner ruled the seven victims, who all were asleep on the second floor of the house, died in their sleep of carbon monoxide poisoning and smoke inhalation.

Six other USC students made it out alive, including Rick Wylie's son, Tripp, who jumped from the burning house.

"It was important to us, my wife and I, to show our appreciation to the folks here at Ocean Isle," Wylie said. "Not just for the memorial but for the efforts they put forth on the day of the fire."

Tripp didn't attend Friday's event. It was "too soon" for him to return, his father said.

The 12 USC friends gathered at the waterfront beach house for a weekend getaway to enjoy one of the last warm weekends of the season. Yelton, a sophomore at Clemson University, joined them.

They caravanned up to the resort town after classes Friday, listening to music and swimming in a canal behind the house, Fallon Sposato, a sophomore at USC told The Associated Press in October.

On Saturday, the group went out to lunch and watched the University of Georgia-University of Florida game before grilling food on a patio under the house. They drank and hung out on the home's back deck until the early-morning hours.

"We just had a good time," Sposato said. "We were just hanging out and listening to music."

The fire broke out shortly before 7 a.m. Sunday and might have been burning as long as 20 minutes before anyone inside realized it, fire officials said.

In an interview two days later, Tripp Wylie said he awoke to crackling and popping and when he opened his bedroom door, smoke and flames.

Jumping was his only option, he said, and he made "a very lucky jump" to reach safety.

"Nightmare – that's really the only word you can use for something like this," he told CBS's "The Early Show."

Firefighters were at the scene within four minutes of getting the call, but the house was fully engulfed in flames by the time they got there.

A preliminary investigation found that the blaze likely started from improperly discarded smoking materials on the back deck. But because of the extensive damage, it was impossible for investigators to determine an exact cause.

State medical examiners concluded there was no evidence of any other injuries. Alcohol was found in some of the victims, but Brunswick County's district attorney said it played no part in the fire.

The charred remnants of the house were demolished in November.