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Ocean Isle still mourns one year after fire

Thirteen South Carolina college students were celebrating the weekend when a fire swept through the house, killing six of them.

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OCEAN ISLE BEACH, N.C. — It was a year ago Tuesday that seven South Carolina college students died in a house fire in the worst disaster in the history of a North Carolina beach town.

Twelve University of South Carolina friends and one Clemson University sophomore gathered in Ocean Isle Beach for a weekend getaway to celebrate one of the last warm weekends of the year.

Rebecca Wood, then a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was also in Ocean Isle Beach for a retreat when she met the friends and spent time at the stilted waterfront beach house the night before it burned.

She still has a hard time coping with her memories of the fire.

"This is a tragedy that still brings me to my knees," Wood said Tuesday. "When I think about what it means to witness the final moments in a person's life, I'm overwhelmed with grief and utter confusion."

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

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, died inside 1 Scotland St. of carbon monoxide poisoning and smoke inhalation.

"It knocks you down a level," Wood said, remembering how she initially worried the fire would spread to where she was staying and the helplessness that followed.

"You find yourself in the middle of this horrible thing, and you want to do everything you can to help, but you find that you are just not equipped."

That was the beginning of a new set of emotions for Wood, now in her first year of law school at Wake Forest University.

"It sounds cliché to say that I think about it every day, but I really think that I do," she said.

Town officials dedicated a memorial earlier this year – a steel cross inscribed with the students' names at the foot of the bridge to the mainland.

Mayor Debbie Smith said she hopes the memorial has helped bring some closure for the community and the families.

Smith said the town is working to improve fire prevention, especially by educating the thousands of renters who come to the town each year.

Family members of some victims have urged that fire sprinklers be required in large residential structures.

A town commissioner said the physical reminders of the fire are retreating – the house has been demolished and the lot sits empty – but the memory of the tragedy hasn't faded.

"This is a day we will remember forever as a tragedy and a void in our hearts," said Commissioner C.D. Blythe.

The state medical examiner has said alcohol contributed to the deaths of six of the seven students.