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The Daily Tar Heel

Families remember Phi Gamma Delta fire 20 years later

Benjamin Watson Woodruff, Robert Joshua Weaver, Joanna Howell, Mark Briggs Strickland and Anne McBride Smith — all UNC students — lost their lives in the fire.

Ron Binder, director of Greek Affairs in 1996, got a phone calling telling him there had been a fire at the Phi Gamma Delta house.

“It was just burning up the building so fast there wasn’t anything left of the building,” he said.

Benjamin Watson Woodruff

Ben Woodruff had just finished his sophomore year, and was set to begin an internship at a Raleigh law office the Monday after the fire.

His parents saw on TV there had been a fire in Chapel Hill. His father, Leon Woodruff, got a call telling him their son was missing and that his car was parked outside the Phi Gamma Delta house. He and his wife, Bonnie Woodruff, got in the car and headed to Chapel Hill.

“I think we both expected what was really happening, but we really didn’t discuss it,” Leon Woodruff said. “We just dealt with the facts and got there as quickly as we could.”

Since his death, his parents have done something to honor his memory every year. This year, they celebrated what would have been his 40th birthday.

“We’ve got friends from out of state and we’ve got a big crowd coming to celebrate 20 years of life and 20 years of memories,” Bonnie Woodruff said.

Robert Joshua Weaver

Jason Hughes still has the letter Josh Weaver sent introducing himself before they started rooming together.

In the letter, Weaver talked about the music he liked — Pearl Jam, Nirvana and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Hughes said Pearl Jam recently performed near him and he thought about how much Weaver would have enjoyed being there.

“I had hoped in my adult life he and I would’ve had beers together or he would’ve come to my wedding or I would’ve visited him,” Hughes said. “I never had that chance, and then I think of all the things he didn’t have a chance to do. He didn’t get married. He didn’t go to Pearl Jam.”

Joanna Howell

Jan Howell, Joanna’s mother, said she had a promising future.

After working on her high school’s newspaper, Joanna became a journalism major at UNC and wanted to go to law school. Howell was also a member of The Daily Tar Heel editorial board.

“We drove over to campus and everybody was walking around in their blue gowns and we were thinking, ‘Oh, she’s going to be in her blue gown next year graduating.’”

She had just received an internship with a local TV station for the summer before the fateful house fire.

Rob Young, the 1996 president of Phi Gamma Delta, said he remembers studying with Howell.

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“Studying with her – you could just tell that she had a tremendous grasp of the material on her profession... but she had a great ethic, too. She studied, she was smart, she knew exactly what she wanted to do,” he said.

Mark Briggs Strickland

Mark Strickland, a member of Phi Gamma Delta, was a junior preparing for dental school after studying biology during his undergraduate career.

Mark’s brothers also joined the fraternity — one of them naming their child Briggs, in Mark’s memory.

Rita Strickland, Mark’s mother, said Phi Gamma Delta has always been there for her family.

“I will tell you that that fraternity — they have been supportive of us and continue to be,” she said. “Every year the fraternity sends me the most beautiful bouquet of flowers and you know to think that this many years after that, they still remember and write me a note — that says a lot for those young men.”

Anne McBride Smith

Anne McBride Smith was close friends with fellow Rocky Mount natives, Josh Weaver and Mark Strickland.

Rita Strickland said they had been the best of friends since they were four years old.

“Anne was just a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful woman,” she said.

She studied English and was an active member within her sorority, Pi Beta Phi.

“She had this great, wonderful smile. She was someone you always looked forward to seeing and you just enjoyed being around her,” Young said.

After the fire

“It was just a wonderful day — Carolina blue sky, Mother’s Day and graduation day, just a perfect spring day in Chapel Hill. “And then this happened,” Leon Woodruff said.

But after the grieving period, those affected by the fire wanted to do more than just keep going.

“I never wanted to see this happen to campus, so it kind of put a resolve in me that we’re going to do everything possible to make sure it doesn’t happen (again),” Binder said.

Binder and Dan Jones, the Chapel Hill fire chief at the time, worked to make the Greek houses safer by crafting legislation for the town council that would require the houses to have sprinkler systems installed.

Bonnie Woodruff said she and her husband came to the town hall meeting where the ordinance was discussed and she later became an advocate for fire safety.

“There was some pushback over the cost, but people were persuaded,” Binder said.

“You can’t complain about dollars when you’re talking about lives,” he said.

In the months after the fire, Young said he and his fraternity brothers were able to heal from the loss by visiting what remained of the house to talk about their friends.

“Obviously you mourn them because they died so young, but you continue to mourn them because you think about the people that they could have become and just really the potential that was taken from them and from their families and from us, too,” Young said.