OCEAN ISLE BEACH, N.C. — Fire ravaged a beach house occupied by more than a dozen college students early Sunday, killing seven and sending several more to a hospital.
Six survivors were released after treatment, including one who jumped from the burning house into a waterway, Mayor Debbie Smith said. Officials had accounted for all of the 13 people believed to be inside the home, Smith said.
"There were three kids sitting on the ground screaming," said newspaper deliverer Tim Burns, who called 911 after seeing a column of smoke rising from the house. "There was one guy hanging out the window, and he jumped in the canal. I know he got out because he was yelling for a girl to follow him."
Burns said he didn't know whether that girl was able to escape.
Smith said she believed 12 of the house's 13 occupants were students at the University of South Carolina; the other attended Clemson University. The private home was being used by the owner's daughter and a group of her friends, she said.
"Nothing like this has ever happened at Ocean Isle Beach," Smith said.
The fire struck the house on Scotland Street sometime before 7 a.m. and burned completely through the first and second floors, leaving only part of the frame standing.
"We ran down the street to get away," said Nick Cain, a student at the University of North Carolina who was staying at a house about 100 feet away. "The ash and the smoke were coming down on us. We were just trying to get away."
Burns said he had to fight to keep several of those who escaped from the fire from going back inside to try to rescue their friends. When he approached the front door, he said, it was too hot to open.
"When I was going up to the entryway, you could hear the windows above me explode," Burns said. "When I knew the flames had taken over, I don't think I've ever felt as helpless in my life."
The waterfront house was built on stilts, and firefighters had to climb a ladder to reach the first living floor.
"I heard somebody hollering 'help.' It was real strong," said neighbor Nell Blanton. "But they were making so much noise last night, I thought they were playing around."
The house had working smoke detectors but no sprinklers, Smith said. It could be a day or more before investigators pinpoint the cause of the blaze, said Randy Thompson, Brunswick County's emergency services director.
Authorities erected a blue tarp to block the view of the fire scene, but neighbor Bob Alexander said he saw investigators removing bodies.
"It's terrible to see somebody's children come out of that house this way," Alexander said.
Family members of some victims gathered in a chapel across the street from the town hall but declined to speak with reporters.
Representatives of the South Carolina school were in touch with officials in Ocean Isle Beach, university spokesman Russ McKinney said. School officials were headed to the scene, about 30 miles north of Myrtle Beach, S.C., he said. The university in Columbia, S.C., planned a news conference later in the day.
Brunswick Community Hospital received six patients from the fire, spokeswoman Amy Myers said. All were treated and released, she said.
The victim's bodies were to be taken to the state medical examiner's office in Chapel Hill, and officials said it would be several days before their identities are released. Authorities from the State Bureau of Investigation and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are leading the investigation, Thompson said.
Ocean Isle Beach is at the far southern end of North Carolina's Atlantic Coast. Only about 500 people live there year-round, but the town is home to several thousand rental and vacation homes and condos.
The burned house sits on one of a series of peninsulas, all tightly packed with homes, that are about two blocks from the beach and connect with the Intracoastal Waterway.
Associated Press writers Mike Baker in Raleigh, Daniel Yee in Atlanta, and Page Ivey in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this report.