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US blaze victims 'were musicians'

Eight squatters who died in a fire at an abandoned warehouse in New Orleans where they were trying to keep warm were accomplished musicians and artists, acquaintances said.

Firefighters said they could not tell the ages or genders of those who died in the city's deadliest blaze in decades because their bodies were so badly burned.

A 23-year-old man who escaped told the American Red Cross he could not get back in to help his friends because of the smoke, agency volunteer Thomas Butler said.

The group had been burning debris to keep warm, with temperatures below freezing, authorities said.

A group of young people sitting on the steps of an abandoned house near the warehouse said the dead were three women and five men.

Rachel Park, 27, of California, estimated their ages ranged from 19 to 30. The victims never thought of themselves as homeless and rejected the "gutter punk" label used by some locals to describe transient youths, who are often seen begging for money or cigarettes on French Quarter Streets, she said.

"They were all accomplished musicians or artists - jolly, happy people," Ms Park said.

Temperatures were just below freezing, unusually cold for New Orleans. The warehouse is in a run-down city neighbourhood especially after the flooding which followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Linda Gonzales, of the New Orleans Mission, said homeless young adults and teenagers often avoid shelters for several reasons. "Some of them choose to stay out and you can't make them come in," she said.

The blaze was reported just before 2am, and firefighters arrived within five minutes to find the building engulfed in flames, fire department spokesman Greg Davis said. Some of the victims may have been rendered unconscious by carbon monoxide, a danger with indoor fires.

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