Second Place Writing – In-Depth


A Decade After the Ashes

Tragic fire poses looming questions
Originally published in the Daily Tar Heel

The Phi Gamma Delta fraternity house was a torch when firetrucks arrived just after 6 a.m. that Sunday.

Rescuers tried in vain to save the five UNC students trapped inside.

It was Mother’s Day. Graduation day in Chapel Hill.

“It reached the point where I remember how desperately our guys were trying to get in there and, literally, we had to have the chief operating officer pull them out by their coats because they weren’t going to give up,” said Chapel Hill fire Chief Dan Jones, recalling the May 12, 1996, tragedy.

As firefighters wrestled flames in a desperate attempt to enter the 69-year-old structure at 108 W. Cameron Ave., witnesses watched in horror from across the street at the Carolina Inn. Flames licked out of the windows and exploded through the roof.

The fire, which also seriously injured three students as they desperately escaped, became a catalyst for fire codes the Chapel Hill Town Council approved 10 years ago this month, requiring all Greek houses to install sprinkler systems.

Today Greek houses in Chapel Hill are among the safest in the nation, but not all University students sleep under sprinklers.

More than a dozen of the University’s 36 residence halls and housing clusters are not equipped with sprinkler systems, and the town has no authority to require sprinkler systems in most off-campus houses, some of which rival the Phi Gamma Delta house in age.

Horror in the morning

The party was a family affair. Parents and friends from various Greek organizations, as many as 300 people in all, gathered in the backyard at the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity house to celebrate on the eve of graduation day. Forecasters predicted Carolina-blue skies.

Joanna Howell, 21, of Cary. One year away from pursuing her dream of becoming a journalist. A reporter and editorial writer for The Daily Tar Heel. Deceased.

As a spring rain fell that night, partygoers retreated to the basement, where a band played from 8 p.m. until midnight. There were kegs and bottled liquor for the guests, and some fraternity brothers shared cigars with their fathers.

Anne McBride Smith, 21, of Rocky Mount. An English major. Had a vibrant personality and a thick Southern accent. A no-holds-barred way of talking to friends. Deceased.

The bar was built from two-by-fours and knotty pine paneling, the same material that covered the downstairs party room, which contained an ordinary trash can.

Mark Strickland, 20, of Rocky Mount. Class president of the Rocky Mount Academy in 1993. An accomplished soccer, basketball and tennis player. Deceased.

The disc jockey broke down his gear and left sometime between 5:45 and 6 a.m. He was one of the last people to see the place in any recognizable state – lights on, doors open and a fan whirring in the background. Alcohol-soaked boxes littered the floor, he later told investigators.

Josh Weaver, 20, of Rocky Mount. Salutatorian at Rocky Mount Academy. A lifeguard and popular swim coach. Played guitar. Deceased.

Eight people were sleeping in the house when a smoke detector blared. Someone had thrown smoking materials – probably cigar butts, the fire chief says today – into a trash can.

Ben Woodruff, 20, of North Raleigh. Graduated from Broughton High School with a 3.5 grade point average. Played high-school soccer. Deceased.

The house, which had extinguishers but no sprinkler system, went up in a matter of minutes, fanned by a northwest wind blowing through the open basement doors and fed by pine boards that lined the walls like matchsticks.

Firetrucks arrived at 6:10 a.m. to walls of fire and smoke, and investigators later charted the temperature at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

“It was a desperate situation,” said Jones, chief since 1990. “We knew that if there was anyone in the house they were probably already deceased.”

In only 10 minutes, fire had raged through the basement and first floor of the house. It devoured the open wooden staircase leading up the center of the house and snaked through the second-floor hall where some of the bedrooms were.

The first floor collapsed. Flames exploded through the roof. Less than 45 minutes after the first 911 call, the operations chief knew that no hope for rescues remained. He ordered firefighters to contain the flames.

The response

Cal Horton, who retired in September after 16 years as Chapel Hill town manager, can still picture the bodies being carried out of the fraternity house that morning.

“The worst thing was being at the scene with my employees and the fire department and the police department and seeing the deceased students being carried out of the building, knowing that friends and family members were just across the street at the Carolina Inn waiting for details,” he said.

The tragedy started the gears of government turning even as some students who were injured in the fire remained in the hospital.

The Town Council, which did not have the authority to mandate the sprinkler installation on existing Greek housing, sought approval from the N.C. legislature.

Meanwhile, Horton and other officials prepared proposals for the council to require sprinkler systems in Greek housing.

The problem was the money. At the time, retrofitting a fraternity house with sprinklers could cost as much as $100,000, and some Greeks said they wouldn’t be able to foot the bill. Previous attempts at fire sprinkler codes also had met resistance from business owners.

Still, lawmakers approved the codes swiftly.

The deadline for compliance hit in 2001, and today 26 of the UNC’s 32 Greek houses are up to code. The rest have been closed down.

Jenny Levering, assistant director for the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life, said the legacy of the 1996 fire lives on in the fire safety programs practiced by UNC’s fraternities and sororities, which pay more than $350,000 to the town in property taxes each year.

The Chapel Hill Fire Department inspects every house every semester, she said, and her office keeps detailed records of violations. Each house also has a student fire marshal who acts as a liaison between the house and the fire department.

Levering, who has been at UNC since 2004, said when she shows a documentary about the Phi Gamma Delta fire during annual fire safety orientation programs, “you could hear a pin drop.”

The brotherhood continues

The room that Phi Gamma Delta brothers call the sanctuary is special. Patterned curtains line its first-floor windows, and leather-bound books fill the room’s wooden shelves.

Smoking is not allowed.

The room is a memorial to the fallen fraternity members, who are pictured on a plaque that reads, “We will always remember.”

Holding meetings in the sanctuary is just one way that Phi Gamma Delta President Jordan Whichard keeps their memory alive.

He also provides pledges with a packet of newspaper clippings and quizzes them on the fraternity’s past, but that’s not how the men of Phi Gamma Delta have come to understand the impact of May 12, 1996.

“The main education doesn’t come from ‘here, learn this,'” said Whichard, motioning with the newspaper clippings. “It comes from talking to people. Every time alumni come who were there on that day, they make a point of talking to someone they haven’t talked to before.”

There are other reminders as well. A commendation for passing a fire inspection sits under glass in the building’s entryway. Hand-drawn maps of fire exits are taped to several doors in the house.

And there are the sprinklers.

The house underwent massive changes during the reconstruction. The backyard where the party started that night is now a parking lot. The basement has been sectioned off and is smaller, but it still has a bar area and kitchen. Interior fire escapes flank the building.

“We still do the same things,” Whichard said. “It’s the same guys doing the same types of things, just keeping (the fire) at the front of their minds.”

Dorms without sprinklers

At UNC’s Office of Environment, Health and Safety, campus Fire Marshal Billy Mitchell has a list of residence halls with sprinkler systems installed and residence halls without them.

He writes an “S” beside the ones with sprinklers and a dash beside the others. The number of “S” dorms is growing.

“My goal before I get out of here: I’d like to see every one of these older dorms retrofitted with sprinklers,” said Mitchell, who has worked at UNC since 1992. He said funding and phased construction plans have been responsible for the more than 10 years it has taken to fully equip residence halls and housing clusters, such as the Odum Village campus apartment complexes, with sprinklers.

“It always boils down to the money,” he said. “You either got the money to do it or you don’t.”

Fifteen of the University’s 33 traditional residence halls – including the large Hinton James, Craige and Ehringhaus buildings – do not have sprinkler systems. Neither do the apartment-style units in Odum Village. The Baity Hill student family housing and the Ram’s Village units all are protected by sprinklers.

State laws for University properties supersede the Chapel Hill fire codes enacted in 1996 and do not require retrofitting unless buildings undergo renovation. Sprinklers are required with new construction.

Mitchell has not responded to any fatal residence hall fires in his tenure at UNC, but there have been some scares, including a 2005 electrical fire in Ehringhaus Residence Hall that gutted a second-floor room.

The Princeton Review has recognized the University’s commitment to fire safety, giving UNC a score of 82 on its 60-99 fire safety scale.

N.C. State University scored a 96, while Duke and N.C. Central universities reported insufficient data.

Mitchell says his office has overseen the installation of sprinkler systems in residence halls at a rate of about two per year since 1993.

“The Phi Gam fire was a tragedy,” Mitchell said. “There ain’t no doubt about that. We’ve prided ourselves on having a safe place for people to lay their heads on this campus, and we’ve made great strides to improve that, but if there’s something more to do, we’re going to jump on it.”

The ‘biggest risk’

The Princeton Review estimates that more than half – 58 percent – of UNC students live off campus.

The 1996 fire codes require sprinklers only for apartments and Greek houses, leaving some students with possible safety concerns.

“The biggest risk right now is boarding houses and individual rental properties,” said Chief Jones, who still keeps the names of the five 1996 fire victims attached to his desk as a remembrance.

Rental properties must have smoke detectors, Jones said, but the fire department has no authority to inspect them. He said students need to check that smoke-detector batteries are charged and window exits are not painted or screwed shut.

Gone but not forgotten

Many of the students on the University campus today are unfamiliar with the decade-old tragedy. But for some, it was like yesterday.

Bonnie Woodruff, who lost her son Ben, said she still has trouble driving past the Phi Gamma Delta house or the Carolina Inn – where she and her family were ushered that Mother’s Day to learn that her child was dead. She remembers driving home with her husband after Ben’s wallet was found in the ashes.

“It was such a shock,” she said, fighting back tears as she recalled the nightmare from her North Raleigh home. “We knew, I think, this was going to be history. This was going to be history at this school, and Ben was one of them.”

Woodruff, a UNC alumna along with her husband and daughter, has become a fire-safety advocate.

She was a keynote speaker at Campus Fire Forum 8, a national fire-safety convention held Nov. 7-9 in Chapel Hill. Addressing a crowd of firefighters and university officials from across the country, she invoked her son’s name to encourage them to keep fighting the good fight.

Her voice unfaltering, she finished with this statement:

“I know that because of his death, others have and will live, but there is so much more to be done and so much more that we can do.”

Resounding applause filled the room.