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Beach house fire kills 7

Various fire departments work the scene of a fatal fire on Ocean Isle Beach, N.C., on Sunday. Fire ravaged the beach house occupied by more than a dozen people, most of them college students at the University of South Carolina, killing seven early Sunday and sending several more to a hospital, authorities said.
Various fire departments work the scene of a fatal fire on Ocean Isle Beach, N.C., on Sunday. Fire ravaged the beach house occupied by more than a dozen people, most of them college students at the University of South Carolina, killing seven early Sunday and sending several more to a hospital, authorities said.

OCEAN ISLE BEACH, N.C. -- Six University of South Carolina students and one Clemson University student were killed in a house fire on Ocean Isle Beach on Sunday morning, making it one of the worst tragedies in the school's history.

Six other USC students escaped the blaze but were injured.

"These are young people in the prime of their life. They had so much to look forward to, and it's just profoundly tragic," said USC President Andrew Sorensen.

The students, who were not yet named Sunday, were spending the weekend at the beach, a typical fall pastime for USC students when the football team is on the road.

Several of the students involved were members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity and Delta Delta Delta sorority on campus, but the gathering was not an official event of either Greek organization, said Dennis Pruitt, dean of students.

The fire was spotted by a newspaper deliveryman, who called 911 after he saw a column of smoke rising from the house.

"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 if that girl was able to escape.

Ocean Isle Beach Mayor Debbie Smith said the six people injured were treated at an area hospital and released a short time later, including a survivor who jumped from the burning home and into an adjacent waterway. Smith said officials had accounted for everyone believed to be inside.

Smith said the private home, owned by Fred Auman Jr. of Darlington, was being used by the owner's daughter and a group of her friends. Attempts to reach the Auman family were not successful.

Hunter Schultz, a USC freshman from Florence, said he knew at least two people who were staying at the beach house because he attended West Florence High School with them.

"They were good kids," Schultz said. "They didn't do anything bad. They did their school work. They were social."

Pruitt said university officials learned about the fire from police in Ocean Isle Beach. Investigators noticed cars parked in the driveway with Tri-Delt stickers on them, he said.

University officials then called the sorority to confirm some of their members had gone to the beach in North Carolina for the weekend.

Jerry Brewer, associate vice president of student affairs, flew to North Carolina on the university airplane to assist officials there, Pruitt said.

Back on campus, grief counselors and church pastors were dispatched to the SAE and Tri-Delt houses in the university's Greek village. Counselors, advisers and friends spun a tight web of protection around the two houses as campus police officers sat outside the stately mansions.

Pruitt said Tri-Delts and SAEs are known to socialize with each other. Their back doors are across from each other. A group of young women walked between the houses clutching tissues Sunday afternoon.

A few young men stood on the SAE back deck talking while a group of young women sat around a wrought-iron table on the back porch at the Delta Delta Delta house.

Classes will be held today, but Pruitt said students will have access to counselors and residence hall advisers. Clergy are being brought in to help.

"We want to make sure the students get the attention they need," he said.

A memorial service has not been scheduled. Pruitt said the university will consult with family and friends in planning any events.

Fire investigators in North Carolina will continue searching for a cause.

The fire struck the house on Scotland Street sometime before 7 a.m. and burned completely through the first and second floors, leaving only part of the home's 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.

"We ran down the street to get away," said Nick Cain, a student at the University of North Carolina who was staying at a house about 100 feet away. "The ash and the smoke were coming down on us. We were just trying to get away."

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 were going back and forth between the houses all weekend long.

"We didn't have any big complaints," Newsome said. "The lights were on all night. They were having a good time."

Winds blowing flames over the water, and not toward any of the other residences on the tightly packed row of vacation homes, kept the fire from spreading. The intense heat kept Burns and others from attempting a rescue, although he said he had to fight to keep several of those who escaped from trying. When he approached the front door, he said, it was much too hot to open.

"When I was going up to the entry way, you could hear the windows above me explode," Burns said. "When I knew the flames had taken over, I don't think I've ever felt as helpless in my life."

Rick Wylie, a Greenville parent who said his son was the student who jumped from the house, said some of the people in the house had been friends since attending high school together in Greenville.

He said he spoke with son Tripp Wylie, a business major, twice during the day and that his son was "scuffed up a bit" from the jump, but was on his way home Sunday night.

"He's in shock," Wylie said. "It's just an incomprehensible thing for these parents."

Authorities erected a blue tarp to block the view of the fire scene, but neighbor Bob Alexander said he saw investigators removing bodies from the home early Sunday afternoon. Family members of some victims who gathered in a chapel across the street from the town hall declined to speak with reporters. Smith said they had left by the evening.

"It's terrible to see somebody's children come out of that house this way," Alexander said.

The victim's bodies will be taken to the N.C. medical examiner's office in Chapel Hill, and officials said it would be several days before their identities are officially released.

Authorities from the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are leading the investigation, said Randy Thompson, Brunswick County's emergency services director.

Smith said the home had working smoke detectors but did not have sprinklers. Thompson said it could be a day or more before investigators pinpoint a cause.

Ocean Isle Beach is at the far southern end of North Carolina's Atlantic Coast, about 30 miles north of Myrtle Beach. Only about 500 people live there year-round, but the town is home to several thousand rental and vacation homes and condos.

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.

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