Looking Back On A Tragedy: 25 Years After The Phi Gamma Delta Fraternity Fire
Twenty-five years ago, Dan Jones was an experienced, well-regarded fire chief for the town of Chapel Hill.
He had a reputation for pushing hard for safety upgrades. Among his top priorities was a recommendation that fire sprinklers be required in all multi-family housing, particularly fraternity houses.
"And I had actually said to the city managers at the time that Greek housing, in particular the fraternity houses, posed a tremendous life safety threat," he recalls.
Many frat houses are old, sometimes they are in disrepair, and a lot of people live in them. Still, Jones says his recommendation back then ran into tremendous opposition – mostly from home builders and realtors. And he was told to drop it.
And then came May 12, 1996. Mother's Day – and graduation day – in Chapel Hill.
'Flames Just Burst Through'
Ben Eubanks, a 21-year old rising senior from New Bern, was asleep with his girlfriend in his room at the Phi Gamma Delta house on Cameron Avenue that morning.
"I remember it vividly," he says, a quarter-century later. "I can remember waking up, and, you know, the room is just completely full of smoke. I was not even able to really see my hand in front of my face."
An improperly discarded cigarette in a basement trash can had sparked an inferno that came up through the house’s open staircase like a chimney.
Eubanks ran to his door.
"And then flames just burst through," he says. "So I then quickly shut the door. There was just no way out that way."
In Eubanks' corner bedroom on the third floor, there were two windows. He looked out and saw nothing but concrete and steel below. He told his girlfriend to follow him, climbed through the window, slid down to the edge of the roof, and let go.
"And the first window I went to, which was closer, as I opened it, I remember that it was just a very hard fall," he says. "It was concrete, a banister, you know, just a lot of stuff you didn't want to land on. And then on the front part of the house was grass. So I woke my girlfriend, told her, 'The house is on fire, we need to leave through the window, it's the only way out. Follow me.'"
Ben managed somehow to land on his feet, and then looked up to find his girlfriend.
"And then kind of stepping back just thinking, 'OK, well, when she jumps out, I'll just try to break her fall.' And she kind of scrambled out and didn't really have a footing and was able to jump off the roof," he says. "She kind of emerged from the smoke and landed on the ground. But she didn't land well."
She suffered a head injury and was taken to the hospital. She survived but was one of three people injured that day.
"That was the first time that I really looked up and saw the house," Ben says now. "Every opening within the house, there was raging flame coming out of each one of those. It was that moment when I thought that there's got to be some people that don't get out of that."
Fear And Grief Set In
That same morning, Bonnie Woodruff tried to get in touch with her son, another Ben, at the Phi Gamma Delta house.
"Ben was coming to be with me on Mother's Day at my mom and dad's church," she said. "And as we were passing Chapel Hill, I remember trying to call him and at that time, in '96, he didn't even have a phone in his room. He used a phone that was in the hall. And that phone kept ringing and ringing and ringing and no one ever answered it."
Sunday. Mothers’ Day. Graduation day. The kind of day where one pre-planned event blurs into the next, a free-flowing itinerary of family gatherings and food.
But Ben Woodruff didn’t show up to church. And he didn’t show up to lunch in Raleigh. Bonnie Woodruff’s husband heard about the fire before she did. There wasn’t much to go on yet.
"We still didn't know," she says. "It's lunchtime, and Leon came up to me, and he held my face in his hands. And he said, 'Bonnie, there's been a fire in Chapel Hill at the Phi Gamma Delta house. And Ben is missing. And we fear the worst.'"
The Woodruff family rushed back to Chapel Hill and waited with other Phi Gamma families at the Carolina Inn.
"Dan Jones, who was the fire chief, came in. And they had Ben’s wallet. And at that point, we knew for real, even though we had pretty much known."
First responders found the bodies of five students – Ben Woodruff, Joanna Howell, Anne Smith, Mark Strickland and Josh Weaver – in the Phi Gamma house. They had died of smoke inhalation. It was, and is still, the deadliest fire in Chapel Hill’s history.
Bonnie Woodruff said the grief she felt is hard to describe.
"It takes a while for it to really sink in. I remember about a month or so later, I was folding laundry," she said. "Maybe a month might be the longest we would go without seeing him when he was in school. But I remember folding the laundry and thinking, 'OK, Ben, you can come on home now. You know, it's time to come home.'"
"Over the years, it doesn't ever go away. But it softens. The edges soften," she says. "Your heart sort of gets put back together when you have a grandchild. And that love, you have somewhere to place it, because you had nowhere to put it."
Dan Jones, the former fire chief in Chapel Hill, did bring up that fire sprinkler ordinance to the town council again. It passed in the fall of 1996. There has been one fraternity fire since then. No one was hurt.
Legacy Of The Fire
Ten years after the fire, at my own freshman orientation at UNC Chapel Hill, we were shown a video about fire safety, and it told the story of the Phi Gamma fire.
The video noted that the fire prompted the town of Chapel Hill to require fire sprinklers in multi-family housing. It warned those about to enter college: Don’t smoke in your dorm, don’t mess with smoke detectors, and know where the exits are.
That's one legacy from the fire.
For Ben Eubanks, now a general manager at an environmental consulting firm, the tragedy had a more personal impact.
"I don't know if there will ever be a point in time where I could not have it really affect me emotionally," he says. "That's not really the goal. Like, I don't aspire to one day get through the conversation without crying. But I think I’m a stronger person because of it. I try to laugh a little bit more each day and find new ways to love family and be a good friend."
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