COLUMBIA, S.C. – A student who survived a beach house inferno by leaping from a third-story window said Tuesday he wasn't sure what woke him up, but he had to make the decision to jump quickly because smoke was filling the room.
Tripp Wylie, a student at the University of South Carolina, said he heard crackling and popping after he awoke Sunday, then opened the bedroom door, letting smoke in. He went to the window and saw flames coming from the front of the house. As it became harder to breathe, he stuck his head outside.
"You knew you had to jump at some point; that was the only option," he told ABC's "Good Morning America."
Wylie said he made "a very lucky jump" into a canal that runs next to the house, clearing the concrete bank of the waterway to reach safety. His friends weren't as lucky. Seven of them died in the fire at the Ocean Isle Beach, N.C., beach house, and six others were injured escaping it.
The victims included an aspiring attorney, a high school homecoming queen, fraternity men and sorority women. They were ardent football fans, out for a good time at the beach.
Six of those killed attended the University of South Carolina. A seventh went to Clemson University. Officials have said many were members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity and Delta Delta Delta sorority — and some had gone to high school together in Greenville.
"There are no words to describe what we've been going through," Chip Auman — whose family owns the Ocean Isle Beach, N.C., vacation house — said while visiting his hospitalized daughter. "We are living a nightmare."
Debbie Smith, mayor of the resort community, said Monday investigators believe the fire was likely accidental and started in the rear of the house, either on or near a deck facing a canal. That side of the home appeared to be the most heavily damaged. Most of the victims were found in the home's five bedrooms.
Randy Thompson, director of emergency services in Brunswick County, N.C., said Tuesday that local officials hope to receive an initial report from North Carolina state investigators on Friday. Ocean Isle Beach officials have said they don't expect any word on a possible cause until after a review of that and other reports.
"It's an awful loss for someone that had a pretty good future in front of her," Terry Walden said of his daughter, Allison, from his Ohio home. "It sounded like they were having a good time. Unfortunately, the fire didn't show any mercy."
Investigators quizzed dozens of college students who filled several homes near the site of the disaster.
Rebecca Wood, the president of the Alpha Phi Omega service fraternity at the University of North Carolina, said police wanted to know if the college students were using a grill or small outdoor fireplace. She told investigators all the grilling was done far from the house.
Police in the beachfront community, which has only about 500 full-time residents, are working with the State Bureau of Investigation and federal officials. Autopsies will take place at the state medical examiner's office in Chapel Hill.
"It may be a few days," spokeswoman Sharon Artis said. "We have not identified any of them yet."
Condolences have been flooding into the Columbia school of 27,000 students, and officials urged them to support each other.
"Please reach out to one another, don't let others suffer in silence," school president Andrew Sorensen told a nighttime gathering of about 1,000 students.
About 90 miles from Columbia in Simpsonville, more than 100 people gathered at an elementary school to pray for the victims.
University officials said names of those who died may not be released until Wednesday, but some relatives and friends of the victims talked Monday about their losses.
Anna Lee Rhea said her older brother, William, was among the dead — a devastating blow to their brother Andrew, who made it out of the house alive.
"Everybody loved him. Everybody really misses him," she said in a brief telephone interview from the family's home in Florence. "You couldn't help but love him."
Anna Lee Rhea said her brother was a huge fan of South Carolina's Gamecocks. The brother of another victim, Justin Anderson, said the same thing about him.
Amanda Palacio, who went to high school with South Carolina freshman Lauren Mahon in Simpsonville, described her best friend as someone who talked fast and was always on the go. "She was a great girl. She still is," Palacio said.
Mahon and Palacio were born just three days apart and Palacio said they were looking forward to celebrating their 19th birthday party together in the spring.
"She was always on the go with something new, saying, 'Let's do this, OK, let's do this,"' Palacio said. "Very spontaneous. Just laid-back. Not a care in the world. Just had it all together."
Mahon had plans to work in real estate law one day, Palacio said.
Cassidy Pendley, 19, was a freshman at the University of South Carolina who played soccer and was a cheerleader at Fort Dorchester High School near Charleston, her boyfriend told WCSC-TV on Monday.
Reid McCollum, quarterback for the rival Summerville high school, met Pendley two years ago when she was junior homecoming queen.
"A lot of people tried to put that in between us but we knew that we both loved each other. We just clicked and just enjoyed spending time with each other," said McCollum, who planned to follow her to the school.