Fifteen hundred mourners gathered on November 7, at the Koger Center, on the campus of University of South Carolina, to remember the seven students who perished in the early morning fire in Ocean Isle Beach, NC, that completely destroyed a beach house on Oct. 28. The victims, most of whom attended the University Of South Carolina were identified as: Cassidy Fae Pendley, 18; Lauren Astrid Kristiana Mahon, 18; Justin Michael Anderson, 19; Travis Lane Cale, 19; Allison Walden, 18; William Rhea, 18; and Emily Lauren Yelton, 18. There were also six other students who barely escaped the fire by jumping out of the windows.
The day after the fire, Chip Auman, the owner of the beach house said that his family's "lives were just changed forever" by the tragedy. Auman said his 18-year-old daughter survived the fire, but was hospitalized and in stable condition because of complications from smoke inhalation. "The thought of losing a child is unimaginable to me, and as a father my heart goes out to the families that lost a loved one in this situation," he said. Auman said the situation was "hard to fathom." "There's just no words to describe what we've been going through," he said, asking for prayers for survivors and the families of those who died. "We're numb, we're confused, we're heartbroken."
What is also so telling about this fire is that it tragically demonstrates the importance of fire safety, all the time, no matter where you are. These 13 students had gathered together for a weekend vacation from school. The house was owned by the parents of one of the students, so it was not an unfamiliar place. Just because they were not on campus, in their fraternity, sorority or residence hall, doesn't mean that they can flip the fire safety switch in their head to "off." In a study done by the People's Burn Foundation and Campus Firewatch, most of the students did not know what to do if a fire broke out in their room and one of the common responses was "stop, drop and roll." (This study can be downloaded from Campus Firewatch). This shows us that we did a great job with the fire safety message when they were kids, but we did not keep it up as they matured and assumed more responsibility for their own fire safety.
After the fire, Terry Walden, father of one of the victims said "Allison's sorority roommate was one of the survivors. She managed to jump to safety from the third floor of the burning condominium." Walden said, "I just hope and pray that she didn't suffer." He added, "You know, it's going to be hard in the next couple of weeks when we really come to grips with the fact that she's not coming back. That is going to be the hardest part." Walden said "You can't be going through life assigning guilt or blaming people. You have to accept these things and move on. We will try to do that somehow."
As a father, I can fully understand Mr. Walden's pain and his deep faith. Losing his 18-year-old daughter in this tragedy, and all that he could hope and pray for was that "she didn't suffer". Despite the heavy heart, he is accepting this tragic loss with a fatalistic perspective, and with a level of forgiveness that is reflective of his deep beliefs and humanity. My heartfelt sorrow and deepest condolences goes to him and all the other family members of this tragedy.
His statement "you can't be going through life assigning guilt or blaming people. You have to accept these things and move on" deeply aches my heart and brings tears to my eyes. Mr. Walden is indeed a bigger man than I, and a much kinder human being. Because, I can't forgive; and I do assign guilt.
As a Father I might be able to forgive. But then no; based on what I know as a fire service member, I can't forgive. Based on what I know as a fire protection professional, I do assign guilt. And that guilt goes to all involved in the construction of these homes without the residential fire sprinklers, we in the fire service included.