OXFORD, Miss. – A fire swept through a fraternity house at the University of Mississippi (search) early Friday, killing three students during the first week of classes, school officials said.
Twenty other students and a house mother escaped the two-story, brick- and wood-frame Alpha Tau Omega (search) house as giant flames and thick smoke quickly spread through the building.
Fred Cummings, a member of the Ole Miss cross country team who was out running at 6 a.m., said the smoke was so thick "it would choke you up" a mile away. "When we saw it, the flames were about two stories above the building," he said.
A fraternity member who was not at the house when the fire occurred said fellow members told him they woke up coughing and found smoke "everywhere."
"They said they just ran out as fast as they could, to get out of that building as fast as possible," said Sean Weidlein, of Middleburg, Va.
Firefighters needed about two hours to bring the blaze under control, chapter adviser Al Bell said. Hours later, smoke billowed out of where the roof had been, and much of the upper floor was in ruins.
There were no reports of injuries. University spokesman Jeff Alford said authorities believed the fire started in the fraternity house's living area, but the cause was not immediately known.
Alford said the house had undergone a routine fire inspection Aug. 17 that found problems including a lack of fire extinguishers in the kitchen area, paint stored in the basement and doors blocked with mattresses. Alford said no citation was issued to the fraternity.
Wynn Smiley, Alpha Tau Omega's national CEO, said contractors had been scheduled to meet Friday morning to address deficiencies found during the inspection.
"The things that could have been taken care of had been addressed," Smiley said. "The things that couldn't be taken care of by the guys in the house were being talked about with the general contractor."
Alford identified two victims as William Townsend, 19, of Clarksdale, and Jordan Williams, 20, of Atlanta, both sophomores majoring in accounting.
Alford said the body of the third victim had not been identified. He said the last missing student was Howard Stone, 19, of Martinsville, Va., a sophomore political science major.
Among the survivors, "things are pretty rough right now," Weidlein said.
In 2001, the university suspended the fraternity because of an incident involving a photo of a member in blackface with another portraying an officer. The fraternity apologized and was reinstated the following year.
Ole Miss has an enrollment of about 14,000, and more than one-third of the student body belongs to fraternities or sororities. The fire occurred about a block from "fraternity row," where most of the frat houses are located.
"The entire student body is pretty upset about this. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Alpha Tau Omega chapter," said Gordon Fellows, Associate Student Body president at Ole Miss.