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Monday, October 29, 2007

House Fire in N.C. kills 7 students and injures 6

[Update below]

(Logan Mock-Bunting / Getty Images)


Ocean Isle Beach, NC - Six students from the University of South Carolina died this morning when the beach house they were staying in caught fire. It's suspected that one of the students who died in the fire graduated from Ft. Dorchester last year. A seventh student from Clemson also died in the fire that occured on Ocean Isle Beach, North Carolina which is just across the border from South Carolina.

The house went up in flames just before 7:00 a.m. A lowcountry couple was on the island when the house caught fire.

Brad and Lauren Bettes of Charleston were at Brad's father's beach house this morning when he told them about the fire.

"He said the flames were about ten-feet over the roof line and the whole entire house was engulfed," Mr. Bettes said.

The couple says fire officials reached the house quickly and put the fire out quickly too, but late this afternoon there were still some hot spots.

"We drove down the canel just one canal over from it. We drove up that street. You could just see the charred outlines of the house," Mrs. Bettes said.

After word spread to the campus, USC's president released a statement.

"We are profoundly saddened at this time," Andrew Sorensen said. Sorensen says classes will be held Monday but counselors will be available to help those coping with the loss of six classmates.

Ocean Isle Beach Mayor Debbie Smith says the private home was being used by the owner's daughter and a group of her friends.

"Down there in that area, it's a daughter or son of the owner of the house that comes and brings their friends down. We've done it," Bettes said.

We are told that a large group of students were staying in four houses attending a sorority and fraternity function.

The victims' bodies were taken to the state medical examiner's office in Chapel Hill, and officials said it would be several days before their identities are officially released.

More from the LA Times:

The fire struck sometime before 7 a.m. and burned through the first and second floors, leaving only part of the frame. Because the waterfront home was built on stilts, firefighters had to climb a ladder to the house's deck to reach the first floor.

"We ran down the street to get away," said Nick Cain, a University of North Carolina student who was staying at a nearby house. "The ash and the smoke were coming down on us."

Cain was one of the dozens of college students who filled at least four houses within a block of the burned home. Neighbor Jeff Newsome said the students had been circulating among the houses all weekend: "The lights were on all night. They were having a good time."

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. Winds blew the flames over the water, and away from the other homes.

The intense heat kept would-be rescuers at bay, although Burns said he had to fight to keep several of those who escaped the house from trying. The front door, he said, was too hot to open: "When I was going up to the entryway, you could hear the windows above me explode. When I knew the flames had taken over, I don't think I've ever felt as helpless in my life."

Some of those in the house had been friends since high school, said Rick Wylie of Greenville, S.C., who identified his son Tripp as the one who jumped from the window. "He's in shock," Wylie said. "It's just an incomprehensible thing for these parents."

Rebecca Wood, president of Alpha Phi Omega service fraternity at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said she and about 35 other students were staying at two houses nearby and had befriended the University of South Carolina students. Wood, a senior, was at the home that burned as late as 1:30 a.m. Sunday, she said. "I think right now most of our kids are just really shocked," she said. "That's something that you never expect to happen -- and then to stand and watch it happen is just horrific."

Our sympathies go out to the parents and families and friends of these kids.

May they rest in peace.

[Update] A reader, Mattheus Mei, says some of the names have been released and you can find them at his blog, here.

Thanks Mattheus for keeping us up to date.