OCEAN ISLE BEACH, N.C. – An intense fire ravaged a beach house packed with college students early Sunday, killing seven and leaving little left of the structure but its charred frame and the stilts on which it stood.
Six survivors were hospitalized and released, including one who jumped from the burning home and into a waterway, Mayor Debbie Smith said. The cause was being investigated.
“There were three kids sitting on the ground screaming,” said newspaper deliverer Tim Burns, who called 911 after seeing a column of 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 whether that girl was able to escape.
Officials at the University of South Carolina said six of the students who died were from the school in Columbia; the seventh attended Clemson University. The six who survived were also from USC. The private home was being used by the owner’s daughter and a group of her friends, Smith said.
“These are young people in the prime of their life,” USC President Andrew Sorensen said at a news conference. “They had so much to look forward to, and it’s just profoundly tragic.”
Students will have access to counselors, residence hall advisers and clergy members, Sorensen said. Classes will be held today.
Dennis Pruitt, dean of students, said the fire appears to have affected two Greek organizations – the Delta Delta Delta sorority and the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. Earlier in the day, a campus minister at the sorority house declined to comment, as did an adult who answered the door at the fraternity house. Messages left with the national headquarters of the organizations were not immediately returned.
The fire struck sometime before 7 a.m. and burned completely through the first and second floors, leaving only part of the frame standing. The waterfront home – named “Changing Channels” – was built on stilts, forcing firefighters to climb a ladder onto the house’s deck to reach the first living floor.
Smith said the house was a total loss.