College students Travis Cale, Justin Anderson and Emily Yelton were Tripp Wylie’s best friends, kids he had known since grammar school.
Yelton was his former girlfriend, Cassidy Pendley was his current girlfriend, and Wylie lost them all in a savage fire at a North Carolina beach house Sunday that left him alive but hardly untouched.
“You try to make sense out of it, which is impossible,” Wylie said when TODAY co-host Matt Lauer asked during an interview Tuesday if he asks himself why he survived while his friends died.
“People keep telling me it happened for a reason, everything happens for a reason. I have to believe that right now,” he said. “It’s the only thing that I can hold on to right now. Definitely, I keep asking myself that question.”
Wylie and his friends were among 12 students from the University of South Carolina and one from Clemson University who had piled into four cars last week for a late-season weekend at a big, two-story beach house built on stilts and overlooking a canal in the little North Carolina town of Ocean Isle Beach.
On Saturday night, they watched South Carolina lose to Tennessee in football, then stayed up late, dancing on the house’s big back deck, having a good time.
Sometime before 7 a.m. Sunday, the house erupted in flames. The five students sleeping on the first floor got out; of the eight students on the upper floor — three stories above the ground — only Wylie, a 20-year-old sophomore, survived.
He leaped out of his bedroom window into the canal more than 20 feet below. When he hit the water, he yelled repeatedly to his girlfriend, Pendley, urging her — begging her — to jump after him. She never did.
Wylie hadn’t wanted to go on television to talk about it, but didn’t want to dishonor his friends. Sunday night, he reached out in his own way to ask them what he should do.
“I kind of had a little prayer meeting with those seven people that were lost in the fire, and I just told them that I was gonna get word out of what they were like, how they impacted my life, people’s lives, tell how great people they really were,” he said.
His anguish was evident, the words coming slowly and painfully, one at a time and in brief clusters rather than in sentences.
“They were your best friends in the world,” Lauer observed.
“Exactly,” Wylie confirmed. “Exactly. Toughest thing I’ve ever dealt with, without a doubt.”
And then he talked of those people who had been at the center of his life and now were gone.
“Justin — Justin Anderson, his smile. Big, white teeth,” he began. “Big, huge smile you could pick out of a crowd. Personality that really — grab any stranger off the street, Justin could talk to anybody.”
Then there was Travis Cale. “Just the same, very engaging personality,” Wylie said. “These are my best friends. Travis — everything was a friendly competition between us. We’d get to each other, just messing with each other — [I’ll] definitely miss that.”
Emily Yelton had been his girlfriend, a pretty blonde with a big smile. “Just really the life of the party,” Wylie continued. “If you were out having a good time Friday, Saturday night, chances are Emily was there. Huge, huge heart. A very caring person. Loved life.”
Finally he spoke of Cassie Pendley, the young woman he had fallen for just a few months earlier.
“We met the first day of classes, which was my birthday,” he recalled. “Me being stupid, walked into a class of about 400 people and just kind of yelled out, ‘Who wants to sit by me?’ and just happened to sit by her. The rest is history. Great girl. I keep telling people [it was] pretty amazing to walk into a room with her and watch all the heads turn to see who she was.”
The other three students who died in the tragedy were Lauren Mahon, Allison Walden and Will Rhea, whose brother, Andrew, escaped the flames. Most of the men were members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity and the women were from Delta Delta Delta.
Ocean Isle Beach is a tight-knit community of just 500 residents, and the mayor there called the tragedy “the worst thing to ever happen here.”
Searching for the causeFire officials haven’t determined a cause for the fire, which quickly engulfed the house, leaving a gutted shell in its wake, but believe it was accidental and started on the deck that overlooks the canal.
Wylie has no idea what woke him early Sunday morning. In previous interviews, he said he just woke up, opened the door to his room, and saw a hall filled with smoke and the roar and crackle of fire. He realized he couldn’t get down the stairs and out that way, so he tore the blinds off the window and kicked it in.
He had no idea if anyone else was even in the house. “I called out hoping someone would hear," he told Lauer. "[I] didn’t have any idea at the time who was in, who was out, who was safe, who was not.”
He tore the blinds off the window and kicked the window out. “I could see flames at that point and could see how serious it really was,” he said.
Telling Pendley to follow him, he climbed on the window ledge, saw the flames shooting out of the back of the house, and leaped sideways, turning to land on his back in the water. He scraped the backs of his legs on a concrete retaining wall on the canal, but was otherwise physically uninjured.
“The only option you really had was just to jump out,” he said in a previous interview. “I couldn’t really breathe. I just had to make a quick decision.”
It saved Wylie’s life. Now he must figure out how to live it without the people who had shared it with him.
“I reach out to them,” he told Lauer. “I hope they know that I’m here for them. They’re in my prayers.”