Chapel Hill, NC Fraternity House Fire Kills Five, May 1996


Chapel Hill, N.C. (AP) -- On a day intended as a celebration of the University of North Carolina's newest graduates, a fire instead brought death and grief to the campus.
Five people died early Sunday as flames gutted the Phi Gamma Delta house, hours after fraternity brothers and their guests held a pre-commencement party and hours before the Mother's Day graduation ceremony.
"It's profoundly ironic on what should have been the happiest day of the year at the university, it turned out to be the saddest," Chancellor MICHAEL HOOKER said.
Fire officials say it will be three or four days before they determine what caused the blaze that left the 80-year-old red-brick building a scorched shell.
Three of the dead -- BENJAMIN WATSON WOODRUFF of Raleigh, ROBERT JOSHUA WEAVER and MARK BRIGGS STRICKLAND, both of Rocky Mount -- were members of the fraternity. ANNE McBRIDE SMITH, a student from Rocky Mount, was also killed. The name of the fifth victim was not immediately released.
Three people were injured, one critically.
During the school's 194th commencement ceremonies Sunday morning, HOOKER -- unaware of the deaths at the time -- briefly mentioned the fire and prayed for those who were injured. Many of the 30,000 at the ceremony also were unaware of the tragedy.
Afterward, hundreds of people, some still in their Carolina blue caps and gowns, walked past the house.
The Phi Gamma Delta chapter had been placed on indefinite suspension in November by its national office after chapter members sent a sexually explicit letter to prospective recruits. The letter advertised strippers and said its parties were so loaded with drunken sorority women that opportunities for sex were assured.
Witnesses said the party at the fraternity house went into the wee hours Sunday. TIM REID, a senior and president of neighboring Phi Kappa Sigma fraternity, saw the flames when he awoke at 7 a.m.
"We went to the third floor window and looked out and flames were leaping over the top of the building," REID said. "We could see the smoke coming out and the flames coming out of the window. I knew it had to be bad. I was just hoping nobody was inside."
Fire destroyed the interior of the three-story house and part of the roof, making it difficult for firefighters to search inside. The first and second floors had collapsed into the basement. Five body bags were carried out the front door Sunday afternoon and placed into two white, unmarked vans that immediately left the scene.
The building did not have a sprinkler system, but one of the injured said he was awakened by a fire alarm. JONES would not say when the house was last inspected for fire safety.
The injured person in critical condition was identified as ANNE GLENN, 21, of Charlotte, who is not enrolled at the university. BEN EUBANKS, 21, a junior from New Bern and former president of the fraternity, was in serious condition. ADAM JONES, 21, a junior from Atlanta and member of the fraternity, was in good condition.

The Waterloo Courier Iowa 1996-05-13