COLUMBIA, S.C. -- The grievous path away from a charred Ocean Isle Beach house has not been easy for those who lost loved ones in the deadly, swift-moving blaze or for those who miraculously escaped the flames.
But when families gather Friday at the base of the Odell Williamson bridge, it will be testament to the fierce task of survival, of remembering the contributions of seven bright young South Carolinians who died too young.
The town of Ocean Isle Beach, N.C., just across the border from South Carolina, will unveil a cross-shaped monument to the six University of South Carolina students and one Clemson student who died Oct. 28 in the canalside three-story beach house.
The names of the seven -- Cassidy Pendley, 18; Lauren Mahon, 18; Justin Anderson, 19; Travis Cale, 19; Allison Walden, 19; William Rhea, 18; and Emily Yelton, 19 -- are inscribed on a granite stone at the base of the cross.
It carries the date of the fire and the inscription "Friends together forever," a fitting epitaph for a warm, carefree college weekend that went terribly awry.
The seven died from smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning. Authorities believe the fire started accidentally near the rear of the house.
Six USC students survived the blaze, including William Rhea's older brother, Andrew.
For those family members and survivors who travel to North Carolina, the journey will be emotionally arduous, said the Rev. Eric Skidmore.
"People have to come to that kind of event in their own time," said Skidmore, who as director of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Assistance Program has counseled hundreds who have experienced death and trauma.
"Sometimes, folks never come," he said. "Sometimes people are never able to come to that kind of group setting, where other mourners, other survivors are present. It is just overwhelming."
Skidmore and his colleagues work with families of those killed in the line of duty and those who have died in hunting and boating accidents.
"We don't all grieve in the same way," he said. "Some folks seem to have an uncanny ability to 'work on their grief' in a variety of ways" through assistance of mental health professionals, through service to others, and through pathways of prayer, art, music and memorial gardens.
"I must say that when we lose someone suddenly and traumatically, it seems to me that the journey through the traumatic bereavement is a road best traveled in the company of others."
For the most part, that has been the path chosen by family members of those who died.
In the seven months since her daughter Lauren was killed, Kaaren Mann has become an advocate for fire safety, especially the use of sprinkler systems.
The Ocean Isle Beach house had smoke alarms, but no sprinklers.
Mann went before a South Carolina Senate subcommittee in February to press for legislation that would provide tax breaks to those who install fire sprinkler systems in commercial and residential structures.
"It hasn't been easy," Mann said. "But I believe it's something my daughter would've done if she'd lived through the fire."
Along with the families of the other Ocean Isle Beach fire victims, Mann is working on a 30-second public service announcement to educate the public on the cost effectiveness and importance of sprinklers in homes.
"Even if the legislation passes for incentives to put in sprinklers, people don't know that much about them," she said. "There's a misconception that they'll flood your house.
"That's not the case. They're heat sensitive, and just one or two would go. They would put the fire out in the early stages."
Mann has gotten closer to some of Mahon's USC friends, a few of whom graduated last week.
"It's sad because it's a reminder that day is never going to come for your own daughter. But they're surrogates almost. ... I feel closer to them and share the pride of their parents, so it's not completely a sad affair."
One bright spot for Mahon's family is that her brother, Devin, is graduating from high school at Spartanburg Day School at the end of this month and is going on to Clemson University in the fall, Mann said.
She also has periodically talked with Andy Evans, one of Mahon's good friends who spoke at her funeral.
Evans said he thinks about Mahon every day but finds solace in focusing on his job as a banker in Jacksonville, Fla.
"Lauren's death was so sudden; it's still a shock," he said. "Still, when things happen, I want to pick up the phone and want to call her. It's hard to stop yourself.
"Months later, it hurts just as much."
Cassidy Pendley's family has faced many difficult days in the last six months. Wednesday -- the day Pendley would have turned 19 -- was one of the toughest.
"Cassidy has been very much in my awareness, and in my heart today," said her aunt Ramita Bonadonna. "Life is different now. We miss her really badly."
Bonadonna, a psychiatric nurse in Charleston, S.C., said she has found ways to use her grief to connect with others. On her niece's birthday, Bonadonna spent much of her day helping a family face the potential death of their daughter.
"Grief is a universal experience," Bonadonna said.
At the time of her death, Pendley was a freshman at USC majoring in chemical engineering and had pledged Delta Delta Delta sorority. She graduated from Fort Dorchester High School in 2007 as a standout soccer player and student.
This season, the Fort Dorchester girls' soccer team wore 16s on their uniforms -- Pendley's number. In April, current and former teammates retired her high school jersey during a soccer game at the North Charleston school. They presented the jersey to Pendley's mother, Lisa Bonadonna Everet.
Pendley made an impact on all those around her, according to Coach Bill Schaufler, who coached her for four years and taught her history.
"I'm still upset that she isn't here," Schaufler said. "Knowing I won't see her come back and say, 'How are you,' is hard to deal with."
Schaufler and others are planning a pre-season soccer tournament in the fall to fund a school scholarship in her memory.
Diane, Terry and Greg Walden won't be attending the memorial service at Ocean Isle, but they are deeply grateful to those who have arranged for the service.
Nineteen-year-old Allison Walden was the youngest of Diane and Terry Walden's two children. Greg, 21, just completed his junior year at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
"We certainly thank the firefighters and the town for this ... It's just too raw still," Diane Walden said in a telephone interview from her home in Chagrin Falls, Ohio.
"We find ourselves quite a bit in pain still. We certainly appreciate them thinking of them."
Walden said she expected the family would travel to Ocean Isle at another time, by themselves, to see the memorial.
The days and months since Allison's death have been extremely difficult, she said. Her family has maintained casual e-mail contact with some of the other victims' families and survivors, but there has been no formal structure to the connection.
Greg Walden has relied on his friends at Virginia Tech to help him through the rest of this school year, she said. He returned home for the summer this week.
At times, she said, the pain becomes bearable and then something happens to remind the family of Allison.
This week, it is the return of other students for the summer.
"It is really, really, really hard. Grief, I had no idea."
For Dr. Genie Lee of Florence, the mother of William Rhea, grief and emotion peaked in March as she readied for a family ski trip with only one son.
"I was just packing and pulling all the ski things out," she said this week. "Putting (William's) to one side and then going and him not being there -- that was probably the most difficult time that I've had."
Lee had considered not attending the memorial service in Ocean Isle Friday, but ultimately changed her mind.
"It's going to be very difficult to go back on that island," she said. "The only time I've ever been there was that Sunday morning when I was called to be there. But I want to go because I really appreciate what the people of Ocean Isle are doing and I know it was very difficult for them as well."
While William's brother, Andrew, who survived the fire, returned to USC and the Sigma Alpha Epsilon house and his sister, Anna Lee, went back to high school, his mother took up a cause to ease her grief.
"I think the one thing that helped me was supporting the sprinkler legislation," Lee said. In February, she and Lauren Mahon's mother, Kaaren Mann, went before a Senate subcommittee to speak on behalf of the sprinkler bill.
"That helped me because I feel if people will put sprinklers in their new construction and retro-fit their old construction it will save so many lives," she said. The bill was returned to a Senate committee in April.
Still, the pain of William's absence is felt every day.
"Our lives will never be the same," Lee said. "We miss William."
This story was reported by McClatchy correspondents Marjorie Riddle, Robin Cowie Nalepa, Allison Askins and Natasha Derrick.