Details of tragedy sweep USC

COLUMBIA -- The Sunday evening worship service at The Shack began with an announcement -- and a prayer.

"A lot of them didn't know," said Garrett Curry, a university chaplain who said in coming days he will do his best to help students confronting "the big questions" that come with tragedy.

Through much of the afternoon, students on the campus of the University of South Carolina seemed unaware of a Sunday morning fire that claimed the lives of seven college students on Ocean Isle Beach, N.C.

Names were not released, but a single detail -- that the victims were associated with the Delta Delta Delta sorority and the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity -- made the loss real.

The natural thing to wonder was, "Did I know them?"

Three girls who had pledged Tri-Delt lived on Jewel Sheehan's floor last year.

"You wonder, 'Were they there?'" Sheehan said.

She first heard about the fire after seeing news trucks at the Russell House student union, assuming reporters were on campus to cover an appearance by Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert.

Then, a fellow student set her straight.

Amanda Shumpert said it was frightening to think about.

"When you first hear about it," she said, "it doesn't really register."

"It kind of reminds you that time is short here on Earth," added Carole Muedder.

Sunday afternoon, students and their parents arrived at their dorms, some carrying laundry hampers and bags of groceries after a weekend off campus. A number said they were unaware of Sunday morning's blaze.

By 3 p.m., groups of young women had gathered in the parking lot at the Greek village, crying while they talked on their cell phones.

A chaplain turned reporters away.

With the university's football team playing out of town over the weekend, many students had gone home, traveled to the beach or planned to catch up on their studies, said Dennis Pruitt, vice president of student affairs.

Student Brandon Davis attended an afternoon news conference trying to learn more.

"It's a sad day for the Gamecock family," he said. "This is one of the worst days we've ever had, with the severe loss of lives."

USC officials held counseling sessions across campus Sunday for students who needed to talk or grieve.

Meanwhile, a group of students from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill said they met the South Carolina students during the weekend after renting two homes next door.

The two groups watched football, grilled out, danced and listened to music.

"It's strange to form a friendship, and now we are all going to try to figure out some way to cope," UNC-Chapel Hill student Rebecca Wood said.

"We are thinking about their families and the kids that are going to have to cope with this for the rest of their lives."