Beach House Fire's Cause Still A Mystery

(CBS/AP) A fire at a vacation house where a group of college friends went to take advantage of the last good beach weather started on a deck, the mayor 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 Mayor Debbie Smith said investigators told her the fire was likely accidental and started on a deck facing a canal on the west side of the house. That side of the building appeared to have suffered the most damage.

The building is so heavily damaged, reports CBS News correspondent Jim Krasula, that investigators have told Smith the cause of the inferno may never be known. Arson is not suspected.

Though students heard through word of mouth which students survived, the names of the victims had not been officially 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. "You couldn't help but love him."

Classes went on as scheduled Monday at the University of South Carolina, but a garnet and black banner with the school's mascot, a Gamecock, flew at half-staff alongside an American flag outside a fraternity house. Two black ribbons were wrapped around the columns of another house.

Kaitlynn Forsyth, 20, a junior marketing major, said she learned about the fire while studying in the library Sunday night, and quickly went to the Internet to find out more.

"I seriously just sat there. It took everything not to cry," she said. "The more we looked at stuff, my heart just sank. I had to go back to studying to fight off my tears. I just imagine it could have been anybody."

The students had gathered at the home for the weekend to enjoy the fleeting beach weather. All that was left of the home Monday was a charred shell, and a burned-out car 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.

Firefighters never had a chance to save most of the college kids inside, who had just gone to bed after a late-night party, reports CBS News correspondent Mark Strassmann.

"I could hear a guy hollering, 'Help!' " said neighbor Nell Blanton.

Another witness described seeing three students sitting on the ground screaming as the home burned, and another jumping from a window into a waterway. The heat was so intense the front door was too hot to open, preventing rescue attempts.

"These were college kids partying until 4:30 in the morning. Two hours later, this house was in flames," reports Strassmann. The fire was discovered by a newspaper deliveryman, who called 911.

The burned home sits on one of a series of peninsulas, all tightly packed with homes, which 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.