We stepped through the cellar doors, down a few short stairs and into a mass of bodies. Strobe lights flashed red and blue across the faces of the young men and women - kids, really - jammed, shoulder to shoulder, into the warren of subterranean rooms.
They were dancing, or trying to, but it was impossible to move more than a few inches in either direction so they just bobbed up and down to the pulse of a heavy bass.
Plastic cups shuttled to and from the beer keg, passed sloppily above the bobbing heads.
The floor was wet with spilled beer and melted snow. The smell was from the underworld.
This was not some illegal after-hours club in the Bronx or a Brazilian disco, but a three-story frame house in quiet, tidy, historic Frostburg where "some guys who happen to be members of a fraternity" - as the fraternity president put it later - happened to be having a party.
It was 10:30 p.m. and just another Frostburg Friday night.
We had come to the house on Ormand Street to see for ourselves what happens at the now-legendary off-campus parties near Frostburg State University. It was at such a party on Nov. 8, according to an Allegany County grand jury, that Frostburg freshman John Eric Stinner tossed back the six to eight beers and 12 to 14 vodka shots that ultimately killed him.
Last week, the grand jury indicted eight people, including seven Frostburg students, on manslaughter and other charges in Stinner's death. The seven students were members of the local KBZ "fraternity," a loose-knit group unaffiliated with national organizations and unregulated by school officials. The eighth man charged lived in the apartment building where the KBZ party occurred.
The grand jury found that members of the KBZ fraternity were charging an admission fee in exchange for all the beer that partiers could drink - a violation of liquor laws - and were selling vodka and gin shots to underage drinkers - a double violation of liquor laws.
The manslaughter charges are, to put it mildly, extremely serious and a first for Allegany County State's Attorney Lawrence V. Kelly.
"The message," Kelly said after the indictments were handed up, "is that we do not take underage drinking lightly, especially when it results in someone's death."
Just how seriously college kids will take the charges, however, remains to be seen.
The party on Ormand Street occurred a week before the grand jury met to consider the Stinner case, but not before the subpoenas went out and rumors about the impending hearing swept through the campus. No one seemed particularly nervous about the free-flowing booze on this Friday night, but the drinking - and there was a lot of it - was the least worrisome thing we saw.
Extension cords snaked through the basement ceiling to power the strobe lights; cigarettes dangled from lips and smoldered in makeshift ashtrays. As we pushed our way upstairs, propelled by a keg hoisted into the kitchen, all I could think about was how quickly that old frame house could turn into an inferno and how hopelessly the kids dancing woozily in the basement would be trapped.
On the second floor, three giddy young women were writing an expletive in huge shaving cream letters on the bathroom wall as a couple, locked in sodden embrace, fell into a bedroom and slammed the door.
The liquor bottles, mostly empty by this time, were on the third floor.
4 It was time to talk to the fraternity president.
Bryan Thomas, 23, introduced himself as president of the Delta Beta Chi and we introduced ourselves as Sun reporters.
"Which one of you geniuses let two reporters from The Sun into our party?" Thomas wanted to know, as the genius, clad in DBX T-shirt, disappeared. Thomas quickly recovered and with the skill of a natural-born public relations master, ushered us into a side room where "we could talk quietly." He had been at dinner with his girlfriend (celebrating their two-year anniversary) and had arrived only moments before, but he would try to answer our questions.
I have seen corporate titans thrust into damage control who did not handle the press as well as Thomas did.
Not at this party. "We don't let in anyone under 21."
How could they be certain no 18-year-olds just slipped in?
"We only let in our friends, and we know everyone here."
"OK. We don't let in any young people or any old people, and tonight we failed on half of that."
And so it went.
The parties, Thomas said, ran from 9 p.m. until 11 p.m., when they promptly sent everyone home and shut the doors. At DBX parties they always have at least "seven sober guys" to keep the party from getting too rowdy. And these sober guys check identification before pouring the beer, Thomas said.
Thomas first said that the party hosts charged a $3 admission and checked IDs. The parties, Thomas said, were expensive and they only raised enough money to cover the beer and the DJs. No one, we should note, collected an admission fee from us, nor did we see money change hands.