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Ocean Isle Beach house fire

The Ocean Isle Beach house fire occurred on October 28, 2007. Shortly before 7:00 AM, EDT, a four alarm fire severely damaged a three-story beach house on a waterfront lot on Scotland Street in Ocean Isle Beach, a town located in Brunswick County, North Carolina, United States. The house was occupied by 13 college students on a weekend vacation and was owned by the family of one of them. Twelve of the students attended the University of South Carolina and one Clemson University.

Seven people were killed, later determined to be caused by smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning. Six others who had managed to escape were transported to Brunswick Community Hospital in Supply with a variety of injuries, where they were treated and released. The USC students were affiliated with the Delta Delta Delta sorority and the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity there, although the vacation was not an official function.

Local and university and community officials across both North and South Carolina moved quickly to assist and provide grief counseling and other support for survivors, friends and families even as the word of the tragedy spread quickly among the collegiate community. More traditional communications were augmented by the relatively recent Facebook service on the Internet, where an outpouring of expressions of caring and sympathy came from sources worldwide.

As of November 2, an investigation had failed to firmly establish the cause of the fire, although it had been ruled as accidental in origin, with no indications of arson found. In the following days, various news reports seem to confirm the likelihood that the tragedy occurred as a result of an unfortunate synchronicity of a chain of events, any one of which having not transpired would have entirely prevented, or at least have mitigated, the magnitude of the loss.

Although smoke alarms were present and had activated within the house, the private residence had no sprinkler system or alarm monitoring system. Neither of these additional features were required by then-current building codes or local laws.

Survivors of the fire said smoke detectors woke them "with only moments to escape" the smoke and flames that tore through the canal-front house. A high level of alcohol in the systems of 6 of the 7 victims who died was determined by the North Carolina Chief Medical Examiner to have contributed to their deaths. A local official commented "I think all of us know and any of us would agree, as it relates to the question of excessive alcohol use, that it diminishes reaction time, that it impairs the thought process."

The house and fire

The three-story frame house, which was raised on stilts, with an additional ground floor for parking, was situated on a narrow peninsula adjacent to the Intracoastal Waterway. Officials stated that it was equipped with working smoke alarms, but not any type of sprinkler system. Witnesses heard the smoke alarms sounding as the house became fully-involved on the windy morning before the first units of the local Fire Department arrived on scene, four minutes after notification. Seeing the smoke, the first responding units immediately called for additional manpower by radio during their approach even before they arrived on scene.

Five students who had apparently been on the home's first floor were able to get out. However, only one occupant of the second floor, a male, was able to escape the raging inferno, jumping from a window at the equivalent of a third-story height into a canal located adjacent to the edge of the property. There were some reports that a second male student, one of the other five, also escaped through a window, but from the lower floor.

Town Fire Chief Robert Yoho stated that who survived and who did not seemed to be almost entirely based upon where they were in the house when awakened by the smoke alarms. "All the survivors came from the first floor, with the exception of one, and that is the one that jumped from the third-story window" he told a reporter from WRAL-TV.

Even before the fire department arrived, witnesses stated that it would have been impossible to gain entry and rescue any persons still inside, although firefighters, aware that additional persons were still inside, initially made an unsuccessful attempt to do so. A neighbor a block or so away was one of the several callers to the local 911 center. As that family recorded on a home video camera over a minute of footage which showed the flames shooting into the sky and degree of involvement of the structure, her words over the phone matched in graphic detail as she described to the dispatcher what she was seeing, even as the first fire trucks could be heard arriving. Broadcast of the audio of the 911 calls and that home video on television news media and over the Internet drew International publicity to the fire, as did photos of the devastation and interviews with eyewitnesses and community leaders in the aftermath.

Six of the USC students were killed, as well as the student from Clemson University. Although families of those apparently killed were all notified of the likelihood of the deaths, the bodies were all taken to Chapel Hill, North Carolina for positive identification. The six survivors were all treated at a local hospital for various minor injuries, and released.

Officials others respond with support

Ocean Isle Beach officials and citizens responded to the scene expressing both shock over unprecedented tragedy in the small community and offered concern and support to families and to other students. Between 35 and 50 from the University of North Carolina had been staying at other homes close by for a service event of their fraternal organization, and had interacted socially with the occupants of the house that burned earlier in the weekend. Some of these students had witnessed the fire and aftermath.

Upon learning of the disaster Sunday morning, a USC official flew to the scene to assist local authorities, students and families. Meanwhile, at Ocean Isle Beach, church leaders and social workers remained close by all day to offer grief counseling and other support as might be needed, even as the universities back in South Carolina prepared to do so as well. Other Ocean Isle Beach residents brought food and drinks share with those working on the grim task of removing the victims and others handling duties on-site. Fire Chief Yoho said that counseling and support will also be made available for his firefighters, especially some of the younger ones involved in recovering the victims.

Later Sunday, Andrew Sorensen, President of the University of South Carolina flew back to Columbia from an out-of state meeting in Washington, D.C., and held a press conference immediately upon arrival. He stated: "all members of the Gamecock Nation are saddened by the loss of six young lives" and he called for remembrance of the student from Clemson University who was killed as well.

Clemson University President James F. Barker issued a statement on Monday regarding the tragedy. "As the Clemson Family mourns the loss of one of our students we reach out to our sister institution, the University of South Carolina, in their loss," he said. "In our state all of us are connected and we feel their loss as they feel our loss. Our deepest sympathies are felt for the families of these seven students. We are working with our students and these grieving families to help them in the difficult days ahead.

Alumni and others affiliated with the Delta Delta Delta sorority and the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity chapters involved as well as their national affiliates and other Greek fraternal groups were also mobilizing support, as were those in various home communities, as the word spread through non-official communications about the identities of those who died and those who had been injured but survived. One of the surviving students was hospitalized again later Sunday night in her hometown for the effects of smoke inhalation.

Through the Internet, and the Facebook service, by Sunday night, the news media reported that large volumes of communications and expressions of support and caring for the victims and families had been posted from websites all over the world. This was reported to be continuing as of November 2.

Late Tuesday afternoon, authorities officially identified the seven teenagers killed in the fire: Cassidy Fae Pendley, 18; Lauren Astrid Kristiana Mahon, 18; Justin Michael Anderson, 19; Travis Lane Cale, 19; Allison Walden, 19; William Rhea, 18 -- all students at the University of South Carolina. Emily Lauren Yelton, 19, was a student at Clemson. ABC News published photos of the seven victims on the front page of its website: ABC News Photos of 7 victims

Investigation

The cause of the fire was under investigation immediately afterwards by state and federal ATF teams. On October 29, the Ocean Isle Beach Mayor Debbie Smith reported to the news media that she had been told that the initial indications were that the fire had been accidental in origin, and that it probably had started somewhere near the rear of the home or deck at the western side of the house. The next day, ATF spokesman Earl Woodham confirmed that its agents ruled out arson, stating "There is no indication that this fire was deliberately set. The investigation was continuing as October 30.

Ocean Isle Beach Fire Department Chief Robert Yoho said the house might have been burning for as long as 20 minutes before any emergency personnel arrived. The morning of the fire was windy, apparently an aggravating factor in the quickness it spread. Yoho commented: "with the wind, it just basically feeds the fire. USC vice president of student affairs Dennis Pruitt later commented that the fact the house was built on stilts, which allowed air to fuel the flames and that it caught fire after a stretch of dry weather, was "a sad series of coincidences.

Later in the week, North Carolina's Chief Medical Examiner said smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning had killed all seven victims. "There was no evidence of any other injuries," Dr. John Butts told The Associated Press. It was explained to one parent that "they died in their sleep and not from the burns. He was told that the victims were all on the second floor and that they were all in their beds. In recalling the conversation with another medical examiner in Chapel Hill, the parent told a reporter: "She said it came very fast, that carbon monoxide comes before the smoke. She said they would have only taken just a few breaths of the carbon monoxide.

On November 2, agents from the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation (NCSBI) and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) concluded their preliminary investigation of the fire scene. That afternoon, Ocean Isle Beach mayor Debbie Smith announced at a scheduled press conference that the investigation had failed to firmly establish the cause of the fire. She said it was determined that the fire started on the back deck of the three-level beach house, but the extensive damage made it impossible to say exactly what sparked the flames. Investigators specifically ruled out a grill and an outdoor fireplace, known as a chimenea. However, investigators could not rule out that the fire started because smoking materials were improperly discarded, and there have been no reports of any other possible ignition sources, although investigators found absolutely no evidence of arson. A special agent of the NC-BCI told media sources that survivors reported that some of the students had been smoking cigarettes, but that no illegal drugs were at the house. In Columbia, South Carolina, WIS-TV made a copy of the Preliminary Report by North Carolina Bureau of Criminal Investigations available online.

Local memorials, fire site cleared

At the end of the week, the burned-out house stood visible behind a safety fence. Nearby, an aluminum cross made by three area residents and surrounded by seven small crosses, one for each fire victim, was the centerpiece of an impromptu memorial of flowers and other items such as stuffed animals and personal notes of condolences were placed by residents and neighbors of Ocean Isle Beach and the surrounding community. Across North and South Carolina, and in Ohio, funeral and memorial services were held for those who died. In South Carolina, The State.com website created a memorial audio/slideshow presentation

Local news media reported that the beach house was torn down the week of November 19. By Thanksgiving Day, all that was left at the scene was an empty, sand-filled lot.

Victims

Six of the thirteen students were able to escape the house with minor injuries. Andrew Rhea, 19, escaped the house but lost his younger brother William in the fire. Another survivor, Tripp Wylie, a 20-year-old University of South Carolina sophomore, said he jumped out of a third-story window into a canal to escape the flames but was unable to get back in to help his friends. Wylie was the only student on the upper level of the house to escape.

Alcohol: A contributing factor to ability to react, survive fire

The Wilmington (NC) Star-News reported on January 4, 2008 that Dr. John Butts, North Carolina's Chief Medical Examiner, had written in an e-mail to the Associated Press that it was "reasonable and logical" to consider that alcohol contributed to the deaths of six of the seven students who died in the fire. Autopsy results indicated that all but one of them had high alcohol levels, ranging from .16 to .29 percent. (The legal limit for driving in North Carolina is .08 percent). He said "the alcohol levels may have affected the students' coordination" and "their ability to respond." One student who died had no alcohol in her system. Butts also said the students weren't screened for other drugs.

The local District Attorney, Rex Gore, noted that the medical examiner's comments addressed ability to respond and survive in the fire situation. In part, he stated "I haven't seen anything to indicate that was a major contributing factor to the fire..." None of the 13 students were of legal age in North Carolina to purchase alcohol. Greenville online reported that an investigation has determined at least one of the students illegally purchased alcohol, perhaps using a fake ID. However, Gore said there would be no charges filed because the student died in the fire.

Future considerations: sprinklers, monitored alarms, building codes

Although smoke alarms were present and had activated, "the residence had no sprinkler nor alarm monitoring system," according to Mayor Debbie Smith at a press conference held by the Town of Ocean Isle Beach on November 2, confirming media reports. (That was later confirmed on November 16 by Dr. Butts, according to a news report of WYFF-TV Greenville, SC). During the previous week, there had been calls for changes in the building codes to require fire sprinkler system, particularly in larger capacity buildings frequently used by occasional guests, even though many of these are considered single-family dwellings under current regulations. Other suggestion have included monitored electronic fire alarm systems which automatically notify authorities.

Mayor Smith said that she felt discussions and study of codes and standards will be the focus of considerable attention at Ocean Isle Beach in the immediate future. On Sunday, November 4, a memorial service for the seven students who died was held at Ocean Isle Beach Chapel. Hundreds attended. At that time, Mayor Smith stated:

"Our hearts are still with the victims and their families. This is certainly a tragedy we hope we never have to deal with again.

According to an Associated Press (AP) news story of November 10, the North Carolina Building Code Council was already reviewing a proposal to modify soffit materials for townhouses following another fire in Raleigh on February 22, 2007 caused by an improperly discarded cigarette that ignited pine needles and raced through through the soffit and into the attic and destroyed 38 townhomes. (Soffit is the underside of a part of a building, such as an arch or overhang or beam). A draft report stated that current methods of townhouse construction have shown a potential to allow fire to spread along and through the soffit areas and into attic spaces. "In the specific instance of vinyl soffits, the soffit material can melt away and allow an open chase for flames to rapidly spread into the attic space," the draft said.

The AP reported that one member of the International Code Council, an association which develops the building codes used to construct residential and commercial buildings, including homes and schools in most U.S. cities, counties and states, stated that he had "received word that the Ocean Isle Beach fire ... began outside and raced through the soffit and into the attic.

One NC state code council member said it's too early to determine whether they will consider similar proposals for standalone homes, such as the one from the Ocean Isle Beach fire of October 28. "We look at every issue like this," he told The Sun-News of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. "It's not something we're not going to look at.

Advocacy

Common ground with another fire tragedy

On November 12, Firehouse.com, an on-line service from the publishers of Firehouse magazine, noted several possible parallels with another tragedy, the Carrollton bus disaster of 1988. During the earlier incident, on May 14, 1988, 27 people died and 34 more were injured (also mostly teenagers) in Kentucky when a drunk driver traveling the wrong way on an interstate highway collided head-on with a school bus which was in use as a church bus and it caught fire, quickly killing many occupants before they could escape. At the time of the Ocean Isle Beach fire tragedy, the Carrollton bus disaster still ranked as the worst school bus accident in U.S. history in terms of injuries and fatalities.

Some of the parents and families of victims of the 1988 bus crash and fire disaster became became active leaders of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), and one became national president. Another parent, Janey Fair, whose 14-year old daughter Shannon died in the fire after the Carrollton collision, said "MADD helped me find my inner strength and see that life could go on... I have found I can make real changes in people's attitudes about drinking and driving and in how our government addresses this critical problem. Additionally, I can help other victims move forward in their lives." Her husband also became active locally in MADD.

MADD had grassroots support, but grew exponentially after these families joined, and shared their losses and the lessons of Carrollton. There are strong indications that the families and others in MADD have made a difference since 1988. According to the Firehouse.com website, with MADD's significant influence, all 50 states have now passed laws making it a criminal offense to drive with a designated level of alcohol, regardless of whether the driver is impaired or not. MADD then successfully lobbied to lower that original level of .10% down to .08%, and are actively working to lower it even further. On October 25, only three days before the Ocean Isle Beach fire, the Board of Directors of the National Fire Sprinkler Association (NFSA) announced that it had launched an advocates' organization called the Common Voices Coalition, bringing together fire advocates who have been affected by fire. A news release from the Common Voices group states it will be working to turn tragic events into advocacy by making a difference, with "a plan that includes education, advocacy, and promotion of fire sprinklers." The Common Voices advisory board does share something tragic with MADD: four of the six mothers on the board have lost children in fatal fires.

Survivors, other Carolina students lobby Congress

On September 7, 2008, WIS-TV in Columbia, South Carolina reported that two of the survivors would be lobbying the U.S. Congress on behalf of two bills aimed at improving fire safety on college campuses nationwide. Ashley Perdue and Tripp Wylie each use the word "luck" to describe their circumstances during the fire which allowed them to survive.

The morning of the fire, Tripp Wylie was able to leap from a third story window and land in a canal, barely escaping the smoke and rapidly spreading fire which blocked other exits. Less than 48 hours later, he was interviewed by Matt Lauer in a live segment broadcast on NBC's The Today Show from his parents' home. He had known victims Travis Cale, Justin Anderson and Emily Yelton since grammar school, describing them as his best friends. Lauer inquired if Wylie was asking himself why he survived while his friends died. "You try to make sense out of it, which is impossible," Wylie replied. Ten months later, Wylie was still not sure why he survived and his friends did not. "It should not have to come down to luck," he told WIS-TV. .

Perdue told WIS-TV. "Seeing so many families devastated just hurt me, having to go see, walk around campus and seeing everybody just devastated, I don't want anybody to feel that."

On September 9, Wylie and Perdue were joined by dozens of college students from South Carolina and North Carolina as they traveled to Washington. In addition to pushing for new legislation, the students said their trip was intended to raise awareness for fire safety and prevention on college campuses, declaring "Every student should know how to react if caught in a blaze like the fire at Ocean Isle Beach." The group was accompanied by two mothers whose college-age children perished in fires in North Carolina. Kaaren Mann's daughter, Lauren Mahon, was one of the seven student who died in the Ocean Isle beach fire. Bonnie Woodruff's son, Ben, was one of five UNC-Chapel Hill students who died in the May 1996 fire at the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity house.

Ed Comeau, publisher of Campus Firewatch, met with students and agreed, stating "...education is really key - students knowing what to do in the situation they're in."

References

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