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Flame devours 7 students

A group of college friends went to take advantage of the year's last good beach weather. The students died in the fire. The fire at their vacation house may have started on a deck, an official said Monday. Two campuses waited to find out the names of the seven dead.

The home erupted into a storm of fire and smoke Sunday morning in Ocean Isle Beach, North Carolina. Six of the seven students killed attended the University of South Carolina; the other attended Clemson University. Six other South Carolina students in the house survived.

Ocean Isle Beach Mayor Debbie Smith said investigators told her the fire was likely accidental and started in the rear of the house, either on or near a deck facing a canal.

Though students heard through word of mouth which students survived, the names of the victims had not been officially announced. Classes went on as scheduled at the University of South Carolina Monday, but a garnet and black banner with the school's mascot, a Gamecock, flew at half-staff alongside an American flag outside a fraternity house. Two black ribbons were wrapped around the columns of another house.

The students had gathered at the home for the weekend to enjoy the fleeting beach weather. All that was left of the home Monday was a charred shell, and a burned-out car sat in the driveway, cordoned off with police tape.

The fire struck sometime before 7 a.m. and burned completely through the first and second floors, leaving only part of the frame standing. The waterfront home was built on stilts, forcing firefighters to climb a ladder onto the house's deck to reach the first living floor.

One witness described seeing three students sitting on the ground screaming as the home burned, and another jumping from a window into a waterway. The heat was so intense the front door was too hot to open, preventing rescue attempts.

The burned home sits on one of a series of peninsulas, all tightly packed with homes, that are about two blocks from the beach and connect by canals. Several houses near the one that burned were filled with college students.

Officials said the group was staying at a house owned by the parents of one of the students. Many were friends from the Delta Delta Delta sorority and the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, said Dennis Pruitt, the school's dean of students.

Brandon Weghorst, spokesman for the national headquarters of the fraternity, said he believed at least three members were killed in the fire and that Sigma Alpha Epsilon was sending a chaplain to help students in Columbia.

Officials said grief counselors would be available for South Carolina's 27,000 students. Clemson on Monday said counseling also was being offered on its campus, about 140 miles (225 kilometers) northwest of the University of South Carolina.

The victims' bodies were taken to the state medical examiner's office in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Smith said none had been identified.

Ocean Isle Beach is at the southern end of North Carolina's Atlantic Coast, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) north of Myrtle Beach, which is home to several thousand rental and vacation homes and condos.

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