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7 students die in fire at beach house

Associated Press

A fire ravaged a beach house packed with more than a dozen college students early Sunday, killing seven and leaving little of the structure but its charred frame and the stilts on which it stood.

Six survivors -- including one who jumped from the burning home into a waterway -- were treated at a hospital and released, Mayor Debbie Smith said. The home, named Changing Channels, was being used by the owner’s daughter and her friends, Smith said, and had functioning smoke detectors.

“There were three kids sitting on the ground screaming,” said newspaper deliverer Tim Burns, who called 911 after seeing smoke rising from the house. “There was one guy hanging out the window, and he jumped in the canal. I know he got out because he was yelling for a girl to follow him.” Burns said he didn’t know that girl’s fate.

Officials at the University of South Carolina said six of the students who died and the survivors were from the school in Columbia; the seventh attended Clemson University. Dennis Pruitt, the University of South Carolina’s dean of students, said the fire appeared to have affected the Delta Delta Delta sorority and the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. “These are young people in the prime of their life,” University of South Carolina President Andrew Sorensen said at a news conference. “They had so much to look forward to, and it’s just profoundly tragic.”

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Students will have access to counselors, residence hall advisors and clergy members, he said. Classes will be held today.

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.”

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The victims’ bodies were to be taken to the state medical examiner’s office in Chapel Hill.

Authorities from the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were leading the investigation, said Randy Thompson, Brunswick County’s emergency services director.

Ocean Isle Beach, a town of about 500 year-round residents, is at the southern end of North Carolina’s Atlantic Coast, about 30 miles north of Myrtle Beach, S.C. The town has several thousand rental and vacation homes and condos.


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