North Carolina fire leaves seven college students dead

OCEAN ISLE BEACH, N.C. – 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 yesterday 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 yesterday 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.