N.C. fire probe focuses on deck

The group of college friends spent much of their late-season weekend on the deck of a friend's beach house in North Carolina, overlooking a canal.

Just two blocks from the beach, the deck was where they talked, listened to music and danced late into the night. But investigators fear the deck also might have been the starting point of a fast-moving fire that killed six USC students and a Clemson University student.

Six other S.C. students in the house survived from the group that included Delta Delta Delta sorority sisters, Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity brothers and a group of high school friends from Greenville who went off to college together.

Debbie Smith, mayor of Ocean Isle Beach, N.C., said officials ruled out a chimenea -- a free-standing outdoor fireplace -- below a second-floor deck, as a possible cause of the fire.

Smith said investigators told her the fire was likely accidental and started on or near the deck, which faced a canal on the west side of the house.

USC vice president for student affairs Dennis Pruitt said it "might be a month" before N.C. investigators officially released a cause of the blaze.

Names of the victims spread quickly across the Internet, mostly on Facebook and other social Websites. But neither N.C. investigators nor the university would confirm the names, even though USC President Andrew Sorensen made calls to each of victim's families offering condolences and support.

"We are not the releasing authority," USC spokesman Russ McKinney said. "That would be officials in North Carolina."

Sharon Artis, a case manager with the N.C. Chief Medical Examiners Office, told The State the bodies arrived at the Chapel Hill facility throughout the day Monday. But Artis said the office will not release the names of the victims until each are identified through dental records and other means, which might take "two or three days."

The victims, according to numerous sources, are:

• Justin Anderson, 19. USC sophomore; member of the SAE fraternity; graduate of J.L. Mann Academy in Greenville

• Travis Cale, 20. USC sophomore; member of SAE fraternity; graduate of J.L. Mann Academy

• Lauren Mahon, 18. USC freshman; member of Delta Delta Delta sorority; graduate of Hillcrest High School in Simpsonville

• Cassidy Pendley, 18. Freshman chemical engineering major at USC's College of Engineering and Computing; member of Delta Delta Delta sorority; graduate of Fort Dorchester High School in Charleston; her father lives in Chapin

• William Rhea, 18. USC freshman; graduate of Trinity Collegiate School in Darlington

• Allison Walden, 19. Exercise science major at USC's Norman J. Arnold School of Public Health; sophomore; member of Delta Delta Delta sorority; graduate of Chagrin Falls High School outside Cleveland, Ohio

• Emily Yelton. Sophomore at Clemson University; member of Delta Zeta sorority; graduate of J.L. Mann Academy

Although several of the students were members of the SAE fraternity and Tri-Delta sorority, the gathering was not an official event of either Greek organization, Pruitt said.