Wilmington, NC – Seven university students are dead after a devastating fire at an Ocean Isle Beach house early Sunday.
Witnesses report the three-story beach house was fully ablaze before emergency crews arrived, but that ocean breezes served to keep the flames away from nearby houses.
Betty Smith watched the fire from her back porch.
"It wasn't a pretty sight," Smith said later, "It seemed like it went up all in flames in just one time. I heard some explosion, I don't know if there was any kinda gas up there or maybe the windows, from the heat."
All of the occupants appear to have been vacationing students from South Carolina.
Six of them were able to escape the blaze and were taken to Brunswick Community Hospital before being treated and released.
"The whole community is devastated," said Ocean Isle Beach mayor Debbie Smith, "A fire is bad enough, loss of life is what makes it so tragic."
Twelve of the thirteen people in the house were students of the University of South Carolina at Columbia, according to a statement on the university's website. The remaining occupant is believed to have attended Clemson University.
The USC students all belonged to either the Delta Delta Delta sorority or the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, according to Dennis Priutt, the university's vice president for student affairs, and the university is offering grief counseling to members of both houses.
Brunswick County's Emergency Manager, Randy Thompson says investigators from numerous county agencies, the State Bureau of Investigations, and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, are all on the scene, trying to determine the cause of the blaze. Officials say any answers are still days away.
Thompson says portions of the house collapsed from the fire and the entire structure had to be shored up to allow investigators to do their work.
"This will probably go down as one of the largest tragedies that the county has ever had to respond to and ever had to deal with," Thompson said. "Obviously our thoughts and prayers go out to the family and friends of the victims, but it also impacts the community. I think this is something that has stunned the community."
Some of the victims' families were reported to be on the scene in Ocean Isle Beach Sunday night.
Click here to view a larger photo of the fire scene.