Fraternity death chills West Virginia University
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Candles flickered in the chilly November air for a second night at West Virginia University as students tried to cope with the death Friday of a freshman found not breathing in an off-campus fraternity house.
Nolan Burch, 18, of Williamsville, N.Y., a suburb of Buffalo, died in Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown.
Hundreds filled the plaza behind the university’s student union, wiping tears from their eyes as Kappa Sigma fraternity brothers reflected during an evening vigil on the short time they knew Burch.
“The two or three months I knew Nolan were the two or three brightest months of my life,” said Matt Barnard, 22, of Baltimore, a fraternity brother.
“We will miss the Nolan that was a caring person. … He was a shining light in a dark world,” said Jordon Hankins, 21, of Robinsonville, N.J., a fraternity brother.
A moment of silence stretched for 73 seconds.
“It’s necessary for us to come together as a community, not just as Greek life but as Mountaineers,” said Tori Moneyhun, 20, a member of a sorority and student government who sat at a table Friday afternoon collecting donations for Burch’s family.
As students united to mourn and remember Burch, many remained split on a ban on nearly all Greek life activities. The university and organizations representing Greek life decided to shut down all social activities, limiting fraternities and sororities to hosting internal meetings and some philanthropic events.
“It’s been kind of a time bomb waiting to go off,” said Randolph Marcum, 25, of Charleston, S.C. “It speaks to the underlying culture here: We’re WVU. We have to get drunk. We have to get rowdy. We have to riot.”
Fans rioted after the Mountaineers football team beat the No. 4-ranked Baylor University Bears last month. Police arrested or cited 19 pledges to a different fraternity, Sigma Chi, on Nov. 6 in the South Park neighborhood near campus after finding students running through the streets.
Students said rumors flew around campus about what happened Wednesday night.
The Daily Athenaeum, the student newspaper, reported the fraternity house had hosted a party that night.
Corey Farris, the university’s dean of students, said the university was investigating. Morgantown police and the West Virginia Medical Examiner’s Office released no details.
The university frequently tops lists of the best party schools in the nation. President E. Gordon Gee said in his State of the University address last month that alcohol abuse was a serious issue.
Some students said the ban on Greek activities was too harsh.
Shannon Roth, 20, of Morgantown said friends in sororities have paid to host parties and other events that are now in jeopardy.
“One unfortunate incident doesn’t mean you have to shut it down,” said Hazim Al Kahimees, 22, a mechanical engineering student from Saudi Arabia. “Just be responsible when you are drinking.”
Al Kahimees said WVU’s reputation as a party school was known in Saudi Arabia. When he applied for his visa to study in Morgantown, a Saudi official asked him if he was going because of the parties.
“I don’t drink to get wasted. I just drink to enjoy my time,” he said.
Police found Burch at 11:52 p.m. Wednesday unresponsive in the Kappa Sigma fraternity house in Morgantown. Family and friends traveled from his hometown to be with him in the hospital.
Dominic Parisi, 18, who graduated from Canisius High School in Buffalo with Burch, said his friend played hockey and lacrosse and had committed to a college before anyone else at their high school.
“He knew he wanted to go to WVU before anyone else,” Parisi said. “This was where he wanted to be.”
Burch was a Kappa Sigma pledge.
The fraternity house was quiet Friday. Blinds covered windows, and no one answered the door. Smashed cans of Natural Light beer and discarded plastic cups littered steps leading to the house.
The house is near other fraternity houses at the top of Price Street. Members of neighboring fraternities declined to comment. One man said he wanted time to mourn.
“Words cannot describe the heartache we, as a West Virginia University family, feel at the loss of one of our own,” Gee, said in a statement.
The Kappa Sigma national office suspended the WVU chapter of the fraternity in mid-October for “previous, unrelated violations of Kappa Sigma’s Code of Conduct,” according to a statement from the national office. The national office notified the university Monday.
Farris said the university sent the fraternity a letter Wednesday notifying members that they were no longer recognized as a student group on campus and had lost privileges, such as reserving meeting spaces.
That was the extent of the discipline the university could take against the fraternity, Farris said. The house is not on WVU’s campus or owned by the university. Farris did not know about the previous violations.
Leo Brown, director of chapter services at the national office, declined to comment on chapter investigations.
Farris said the university notified the national offices of all fraternities and sororities of the ban on activities. Any organization found in violation will lose its campus recognition and could lose national recognition, Farris said.
The university is cooperating with the police investigation. It handed over a list of students known at the beginning of the year to be members of the fraternity. The university will investigate as well.
Students implicated in Burch’s death could face suspension, expulsion or other discipline from the university, Farris said.
Aaron Aupperlee is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at 412-320-7986 or [email protected]. The Associated Press contributed to this report.