Mourners show support for fire victims at vigil

COLUMBIA -- From a crowd of 300 on Greene Street, one man stepped forward.

He walked to the seven wreaths -- one for each student killed in a horrific house fire on a North Carolina beach -- and paused to kneel in front of each one.

He was Stephen Anderson. His brother, Justin Anderson, died in Sunday's fire. The crowd didn't know that.

"I'm the oldest of four," the 23-year-old USC graduate said later. "Every day it's tough. I go to bed crying and wake up crying -- and I cry a few more times in between.

"I just want to tell everybody who is praying for my family -- I know we are hearing them."

Earlier, the crowd had gathered slowly, in ones and twos, out of the shadows of the University of Couth Carolina Horseshoe's ancient oaks and antebellum buildings.

Some held hands. Others whispered. Most were silent.

All were drawn to this venerable place by the newest means of communications: Postings on Facebook, text messages, phone trees.

They were students from USC and Clemson University and Benedict College or from no school at all. An organic gathering of mourners. Almost all young and who came simply because they wanted to -- or needed to.

Tuesday's mourners were relatives and childhood friends of the victims of the Ocean Isle Beach fire. Or acquaintances. Or compete strangers drawn by the common bonds of grief at lives taken too soon.

From the shadows they filed slowly into the white brightness of Rutledge Chapel and were invited to share their thoughts.

That was in contrast to the formal vigil sponsored by the university Monday night, where administrators and Greek officers offered the best they could with words of solace from a podium.

Tuesday night, Alesha Brown, 20, took one look around at the hundreds of students shuffling their feet and talking on cell phones and decided to take charge.

"If nobody shows up, we'll have our own vigil," she said before climbing to the top step, clearing her throat and making this announcement:

"Is anyone responsible for, or planned this event?"

Silence. The students, including 18-year-olds Rashad Pendarvis, Sabrina Hammonds and Candace Reese, shuffled their feet.

They didn't know the students who died. They just heard about the vigil while at a club meeting and decided to come to show their support.

"No? That's fine," Brown said. "It's 7:30 now, let's head inside the chapel."

At first, everyone was reluctant to speak. Then, after a few brave souls offered some comments, the students started talking in waves -- including a class officer from Benedict College who offered his sympathy.

Lauren Merkt, 20, sat silently in the back row. Then she, too, slowly stood to speak.

Last year, she was Allison Walden's roommate, she told the group. She remembered the fun they had watching Oprah together "as all girls do."

She remembered asking Walden who her favorite cartoon character was. And later bought her a Mickey Mouse blanket.

Tuesday night, she couldn't get the blanket out of her mind.

The two were both from Ohio -- Merkt from Cincinnati, and Walden from Chagrin Falls. "Luck of the draw," Merkt said.

Walden was a great poker player, Merkt said, "so vivacious, so alive in everything she did."

As she walked from Rutledge Chapel to the Russell House for a moment of silence at the memorial the university set up Tuesday, she grew quiet.

The two had drifted apart this year after Walden pledged with the Tri-Delt sorority. And walking through the darkened campus, Merkt only felt chill.

"There's an eeriness in the air," she said. "The whole campus is like that, like I've never felt before. You wonder how such bad things could happen to such good people?"

Lindsay Stephens, 18, was in the chapel, too. She had grown up with Cassidy Pendley, also a victim of the fire.

"I knew her since she was 11," Stephens said through tears.

They attended rival high schools but played soccer together every summer.

"She was so beautiful, and so athletic and so nice to everyone."

But the two parted ways after high school -- Pendley going to USC, Stephens to Clemson.

Stephens heard about Pendley's death in a phone call from a friend. "It was horrible."

Stephens decided to drive from the Upstate to Tuesday's impromptu vigil "because this is where her friends will be."

She rose to speak:

"It was heartbreaking to see her picture on the news. That could be any of us. We are not garnet and black. We are not Clemson. We are just people, like them. And hopefully, we can all come together to pray for their families."

Afterward, Stephens stood sobbing in the arms of a friend near the wreaths, placed on Greene Street the night before.

"I am devastated," she said. "It's horrible to think that she was only 18 years old and she'll never be able to finish her story."

To close the vigil, Brown -- the student body treasurer -- led the students in singing the USC alma mater.

"Here's a health Carolina, forever to thee," the students sang, "raising their glasses" to their classmates one last time.