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Fire at S. Carolina beach house kills 7 students
Associated Press

Firefighters inspect a beach house fire in Ocean Isle Beach S.C. on Sunday. The intense fire killed 7 college students.

 

Associated Press

Firefighters remove one of the bodies found in the beach house.

 

Associated Press

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Published: 10/29/2007 7:10 AM

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) -- A weekend of fun vanished in a storm of fire and smoke that killed seven college friends and left behind a gutted beach house and an emotionally devastated campus.

Six of the seven killed in the fire Sunday morning in Ocean Isle Beach, N.C., attended the University of South Carolina; the other attended Clemson University. Six other South Carolina students in the house survived.

"My heart goes out to everyone involved," South Carolina student Lindsey Riddick, 19, said Sunday evening. "I just can't fathom that at all."

Dennis Pruitt, the school's dean of students, said many of the students were friends from the Delta Delta Delta sorority and the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. The father of one survivor said several had gone to high school together in Greenville.

Officials said the students were staying at a house owned by the parents of one of the students.

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.

One witness described seeing three students sitting on the ground screaming as the home burned, and another jumping from a window into a waterway. The six survivors were hospitalized and released, Mayor Debbie Smith said.

The fire's cause was being investigated.

As news of the fire spread around the South Carolina campus on Sunday, so did rumors of the victims. Officials said identifications might not be made publicly until Wednesday, but that grief counselors would be available for the 27,000 students here when classes resume Monday.

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

"When any one member of our family is lost, we are all diminished," he said, adding his thoughts also went out to the Clemson community.

South Carolina freshman J.P. Shorter said he and was talking with friends about the fire and that there were all kinds of rumors about what happened. "Some people I know are in Delta Delta Delta," said Shorter, 18, of Charleston. "I feel bad."

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

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."

The victims' bodies were to be taken to the state medical examiner's office in Chapel Hill, N.C. Authorities from the State Bureau of Investigation and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were leading the investigation, said Randy Thompson, Brunswick County's emergency services director.

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.