Blaze That Killed 7 College Students May Have Started On Deck

Monday, October 29th 2007, 8:25 am
By: News On 6

OCEAN ISLE BEACH, N.C. (AP) _ For the group of college buddies spending a late-season weekend at a friend's beach house, the deck overlooking a canal was the center of their good times.

It was where they talked, listened to music and danced late into the night. But investigators fear the deck just two blocks from the beach may also have been the starting point of a fast-moving fire that killed seven people, including a group of high school friends who went off to college together.

``It sounded like they were having a good time. Unfortunately, the fire didn't show any mercy,'' said Terry Walden, whose 19-year-old daughter, Allison, died in the blaze. ``They probably never woke up.''

The storm of fire and smoke _ so daunting that firefighters radioed for backup before they even arrived at the scene _ enveloped the home early Sunday, killing six students from the University of South Carolina and one from Clemson University. Six other South Carolina students in the house survived.

Classes went on as scheduled Monday at South Carolina's Columbia campus, but grief counselors were available for the 27,000 students. Clemson also offered counseling.

Anna Lee Rhea said her older brother, William, was among the dead _ a devastating blow to their older brother, Andrew, who made it out of the house alive. ``Everybody loved him. Everybody really misses him,'' she said in a brief telephone interview from the family's home in Florence, S.C. ``You couldn't help but love him.''

In an interview from Chagrin Falls, Ohio, Walden said his daughter picked USC for its warm weather and vibrant Greek life. Officials have said many of the dead were members of the Delta Delta Delta sorority and the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity.

``It's an awful loss for someone that had a pretty good future in front of her,'' said Walden, 56, an environmental engineer.

Mayor Debbie Smith said Monday that investigators believe the fire was likely accidental and started in the rear of the house, either on or near the deck facing the canal on the west side of the house. That side of the residence appeared to be the most heavily damaged.

Investigators should be able to determine where the fire started, but may have trouble finding a specific cause, said Dr. Rolin Barrett, a consulting engineer with Raleigh-based Barrett Engineering who has been involved in almost 1,000 fire investigations.

``So many things are consumed in fire that you can't tell what they were like beforehand,'' he said. ``If a cigarette did it, then the cigarette was probably consumed.''

As authorities removed the bodies from the charred home, they found most of the victims in the home's five bedrooms. The only person on the top floor who survived did so by jumping out of a window and into the adjacent canal, said Ocean Isle Beach fire chief Robert Yoho.

Investigators quizzed dozens of college students who filled several homes near the site of the disaster. Rebecca Wood, the president of the Alpha Phi Omega service fraternity at the University of North Carolina, said she and her friends spent more than two hours talking with police about the deaths of the people they met just hours before.

Authorities wanted ``descriptions for anything about the people in the house,'' Wood said. ``We had just met them that day and didn't have last names for anybody ... But they interviewed everybody that set foot in the house.''

Wood said police wanted to know if the college students were using a grill or a small outdoor fireplace called a chiminea. She told investigators she didn't see anyone using the chiminea, and all the grilling was done far from the house.

``The smoke was going straight in the air,'' Wood said. ``They were doing it in the correct place.''

Police in the beachfront community, which has only about 500 full-time residents and had gone at least two decades without a fatal fire, are working with the State Bureau of Investigation and federal officials. The victims' remains are being sent to the state medical examiner's office in Chapel Hill, where autopsies will take place.

``It may be a few days,'' spokeswoman Sharon Artis said. ``We have not identified any of them yet.''

Neighbor Bob Alexander, who lives directly across the canal from the burned home, said the first group of students arrived at the beach house late Friday afternoon. By the time the sun set, the group was out on the deck listening to music. They were up the next day, back out on the deck and getting ready in the afternoon to watch South Carolina's football game at Tennessee.

``We met them that afternoon,'' Wood said. ``The back (decks) faced each other and we were out there joking, making football jokes because both of us had games that day. It was all in good fun. Later, they came over to introduce themselves.''

Alexander remembered seeing two people _ a college-aged man and one young woman _ dancing on the deck around 11 p.m. A short time later, South Carolina's loss to the Volunteers was over, and the Gamecocks had the neighboring Tar Heels over to commiserate. Wood and a few others from UNC stayed up late dancing and munching on leftover football snacks with their new friends.

``For them to open up their house to us was just so nice,'' Wood said. ``We gave them hugs and said we would Facebook later. That's the great thing about the online stuff now _ friendships could grow without seeing each other. We got along really well.''

Wood left around 1:30 a.m., but Alexander said the lights were still on at the doomed beach house as late as 2:30 a.m. He awoke to the sound of sirens a few minutes after 7 a.m.

``Flames were halfway across the channel,'' Alexander said. ``The fire was roaring and cracking. You could already see inside the house.''