Reports: 6 of 7 students killed in beach-house fire were intoxicated

COLUMBIA -- Six of the seven South Carolina college students killed in last month's North Carolina beach house fire had blood-alcohol levels as much as three times the legal limit for an adult operating a vehicle, according to toxicology reports released Friday.

The students, all of whom were underage, had blood-alcohol levels ranging from 0.16 percent to 0.29 percent. The legal limit for driving in North Carolina is 0.08 percent.

Lauren Mahon, an 18-year-old University of South Carolina freshman from Simpsonville, did not have alcohol in her system, said Dr. John Butts, North Carolina's medical examiner.

The students died after a fire broke out shortly after 7 a.m. Oct. 28 at a beach house on Ocean Isle Beach, N.C. Thirteen college students from South Carolina were in the house. Six escaped, including some who jumped from second-story windows.

Seven students -- six from USC and one from Clemson University -- died from smoke inhalation and poisoning from carbon monoxide, which is odorless. It is likely they died in their sleep.

Butts said the alcohol levels might have affected the students' coordination and "their ability to respond."

However, Brunswick County District Attorney Rex Gore said alcohol did not contribute to the students' deaths.

"It's a tragedy when they have those levels of alcohol," Gore said. "But I haven't seen anything to indicate that was a major contributing factor to the fire or to the chances of survival."

But with blood-alcohol levels that high, the students' reaction times likely were slowed and their judgment impaired, said Dr. Robert Stafford, medical director for the Lexington-Richland Alcohol and Drug Abuse Council.

Alcohol affects people in different ways, depending on age, weight and overall health, Stafford said. But since the students were young and in good health, they would generally react the same to alcohol, he said.

At 0.1 percent, they would have mood changes and reduced coordination. At 0.2 percent, they would have slurred speech, trouble walking and impaired judgment. At 0.3 percent, they would have memory loss, nausea and vomiting.

"Impaired judgment means you can't make a clear decision," Stafford said. "If you saw smoke under the door, your reaction of what to do would be markedly impaired. Your reaction to everything would be markedly slower."

Two survivors of the fire said the students had been drinking and smoking during the weekend.

"It was never brought to our attention any other drugs (were) being used or concern about any other drugs being used," Butts said. "The tests that we ran were the tests that we would ordinarily run."

Fire officials have not determined a cause for the fire but said they could not rule out cigarettes.