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Mayor: Blaze That Killed 7 College Students at N.C. Beach House May Have Started on Deck

A fire at a vacation house where college students went to take advantage of the last good beach weather may have started on a deck, an official said Monday, as two campuses waited to find out the names of the seven dead.

The home erupted into a storm of fire and smoke Sunday morning in Ocean Isle Beach, N.C. Six of the seven students killed attended the University of South Carolina; the other attended Clemson University. Six other South Carolina students in the house survived.

Ocean Isle Beach Mayor Debbie Smith said investigators told her the fire was likely accidental and started either on or near a deck facing a canal on the west side of the house. That side of the building appeared to have suffered the most damage. Earlier Monday, Smith had said the fire started on the deck.

“They may not be able to determine what started it,” Smith said.

Though students heard through word of mouth which students survived, the names of the victims had not been announced. Anna Lee Rhea said her older brother, William, was among the dead a devastating blow to their older brother, Andrew, who made it out of the house alive.

“Everybody loved him. Everybody really misses him,” she said in a brief telephone interview from the family’s home in Florence, S.C. “You couldn’t help but love him.”

Classes went on as scheduled at the University of South Carolina Monday, where a garnet and black banner with the school’s mascot, a Gamecock, flew at half-staff outside a fraternity house. Black ribbons were wrapped around the columns of another house. The campus scheduled a candlelight ceremony for Monday evening.

The students had gathered at the home for the weekend to enjoy the fleeting beach weather. All that was left of the structure Monday was a charred shell, and four burned-out cars sat in the driveway, cordoned off with police tape.

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.

Fire Chief Robert Yoho said most of the victims were found in the home’s bedrooms. The only person on the top floor who survived did so by jumping out of a window and into the adjacent canal, he said.

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 by canals. Several houses near the one that burned were filled with college students.

Officials said the group was staying at a house owned by the parents of one of the students. Many were friends from the Delta Delta Delta sorority and the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, said Dennis Pruitt, the school’s dean of students.

Brandon Weghorst, spokesman for the national headquarters of the fraternity, said he believed at least three members were killed in the fire and that Sigma Alpha Epsilon was sending a chaplain to help students in Columbia.

“Any time you’ve got one death it’s difficult, but multiple deaths can be overwhelming for a chapter,” he said. “When a tragedy like that happens, especially to someone who’s so young, it makes it more difficult.”

Some of the people in the house had been friends since high school, said Rick Wylie of Greenville, who said his son Tripp jumped from the burning home.

“He’s in shock,” Wylie said. “It’s just an incomprehensible thing for these parents.”

Ashley Moore, a fashion merchandising senior at South Carolina, said one of her friends was in a sorority with the Clemson student. Her friend sent a message to her Sunday evening asking “to keep her sorority in mind because it was one of her sisters.”

“I feel really bad for everybody. It’s one of those events that you can’t help but feel bad for anyone that’s involved,” said Moore, of Spartanburg. “You just give your sympathies to everyone involved and be grateful for the friends you have, keep them close.”

Officials said grief counselors would be available for South Carolina’s 27,000 students. Clemson on Monday said counseling also was being offered on its campus, about 140 miles northwest of the University of South Carolina.

The victims’ bodies were taken to the state medical examiner’s office in Chapel Hill, N.C. Smith said none had been identified.

Ocean Isle Beach is at the 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.

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