President Michael D. Higgins and his wife Sabina signing the book of condolences at the Mansion House in Dublin
By Ray O’Hanlon
As families of those who died and who were injured in the Berkeley balcony collapse began arriving in San Francisco, tributes were being paid to the dead and injured on both sides of the Atlantic.
At the same time, a torrent of criticism has been directed at the New York Times for a report that appeared to relate the balcony collapse to incidents in the past involving Irish J-1 students.
The report prompted critical comment from Taoiseach Enda Kenny, and letters to the editor from both former Irish President Mary McAleese, and Ireland’s Ambassador to the United States, Anne Anderson.
Two critical letters, though not from McAleese or Anderson, were carried by the Times letters page today, Thursday.
Meanwhile, the all too short lives of the six dead students have been the focus of most reporting in the past couple of days, including a report today in the New York Times.
Five of the students were from the South County Dublin area and were students at University College Dublin, the Dublin Institute of Technology, and the Dun Laoghaire Institute or Art, Design and Technology.
When in high school the five had attended St. Mary’s College in Rathmines, St. Andrew’s College in Booterstown and Loreto Convent in Foxrock, all in south Dublin.
Those who died were: Niccolai Schuster (21), Eoghan Culligan (21), Eimear Walsh (21), Olivia Burke, Ashley Donohoe and Lorcan Miller (21).
The J-1 students were from the South County Dublin area and were celebrating a 21st birthday when the tragedy occurred.
Ashley Donohoe was Irish American. She was from Santa Rosa in the Bay Area, was studying at Sonoma State University and was a cousin of Olivia Burke.
The sense of shock at the ending of such young and purposeful lives has been deeply felt in both the U.S. and Ireland.
In Dublin, the Dáil went into recess and a book of condolences was opened in the Mansion House.
In California, State Senator Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) said that she will ask the California Senate to adjourn in memory of the students.
Senator Hancock, whose husband, Tom Bates, is the Mayor of Berkeley, said she would present her request on the Senate floor at the conclusion of the regular session today.
Senator Hancock, according to a release from her office, will ask her fellow senators to join her in memorializing the dead students. She will then read out their names.
“Our hearts go out to their families as well as to the other young people who were seriously injured in the accident. We pray for their recovery,” Senator Hancock will state in her adjournment request.
And she will continue: “This tragedy touches every family in Ireland and the horror of it is being felt deeply across that entire country today. There is a very specific reason for that: Every Irish family is touched by this horrific incident because these young people were following in a long-running tradition that brings thousands of young Irish people to California every year.
“They take a break from college to come here on temporary visas offered by the U.S. government to participate in the federal Work Travel program, which allows students to live and work in this country for up to four months. In the Bay area, they land summer jobs on Fisherman’s Wharf and in department stores, restaurants and coffee shops throughout the region. They work with and interact with Americans day in and day out.
“They come to experience American life, learn about American culture and then return to their studies and their country with a better understanding of what America is. They - in effect - become some of the best Ambassadors for this country, which is why so many follow in their footsteps. They return full of hope and idealism and positive feeling about America, which they carry with them for the rest of their lives.
“As some of you know, I have been involved with Ireland for several years and have travelled there to meet with Irish political and cultural leaders, peace activists and community bridge-builders on both sides of the Irish border. I was always struck by the openness and warmth of the people and their willingness to extend an open hand to those in need and across religious and political boundaries. Today, we need to extend a loving embrace back to the families of these young people.
“Berkeley and Ireland have been linked from birth as the city takes its name from Ireland's Bishop George Berkeley. It pains me that we will now be forever united in an even more profound way as a result of this tragedy: united in sadness and anguish for the loss of these young lives. But let us ensure, in our embrace of their heartbroken families and their grieving nation, that Ireland's bond with Berkeley and indeed with California will remain a source of solidarity and solace.
“I ask the Senate to adjourn in memory of these wonderful young people and their families, and for the people of Ireland.”
Meanwhile, as family members arrive so too will Irish Diaspora Minister Jimmy Deenihan.
Speaking before his departure from Dublin, Minister Deenihan said: "The tragic loss of six young lives at the beginning of a summer in California which should have been filled with new experiences, new opportunities and new friends, is simply heart breaking.
"At this profoundly difficult time, on behalf of the Government, I want to stand with our young J1 community in Berkeley and express solidarity with the families of the bereaved, the injured and all those affected by this terrible tragedy.
"When I meet with representatives of the Irish community in Berkeley, local residents and the local U.S. authorities, I will take the opportunity to express deep appreciation, on behalf of the government and the people of Ireland, for the generous support and assistance they have offered to those affected by this devastating accident. Their cooperation with the dedicated team at our consulate is enormously important in helping us to deliver practical support to those affected."
Even as families gather to mourn the dead and comfort the seven students serious injured in the balcony collapse early Tuesday morning, reports continue to focus on the balcony itself was attached to the apartment building by wooden joists which, multiple reports have indicated, were compromised by dry rot.
Reported the San Francisco Chronicle on Thursday morning: “The investigation into the cause of the Berkeley apartment balcony collapse that killed six people and injured seven focused Wednesday on the company that constructed the building — a firm that has paid more than $6 million in the past two years to settle lawsuits claiming its work caused balconies to rot prematurely and fail.
“Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates said there was ‘high probability’ that water had penetrated and rotted the wooden underpinnings of the balcony that broke away early Tuesday. Officials ordered a second balcony removed from the same building Wednesday because it was ‘structurally unsafe,’ and Bates said its problems were similar to those suspected in the collapse.
“Court documents show that Segue Construction Inc., the Pleasanton company that built the Library Gardens apartment complex at 2020 Kittredge St., site of Tuesday’s tragedy, has paid $6.5 million since 2013 to settle a pair of lawsuits alleging problems like those apparently at the center of the Berkeley probe.”
The revelations regarding the structural state of the balcony have served to lessen the emphasis on the actual number of students who were standing on it when it gave way.
Initial reports pointed to between 12 and 14 with 13 being thrown onto the street below when the balcony flipped over as it fell.
Subsequent accounts point to a different scenario in which there were fewer standing on the balcony as it began break from the building but with others inside the apartment lunging forward onto the balcony in an effort to save those standing on it.
A clearer picture will emerge as the investigation into the tragedy gathers testimony from survivors and eye witnesses.
The New York Times report that has been strongly criticized focused not only on the tragedy, but on an incident last year in which a number of Irish students were involved in a raucous party that resulted in damage to an apartment.
The reference in the Times story, while accurate, angered many for its timing and in the context it was presented.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny, according to an Irish Times report, expressed “surprise and disappointment” at the tone of the article.
Asked to comment on a letter written by former president Mary McAleese to the Times criticizing the article, Mr. Kenny said he fully supported her sentiments.
Mr. Kenny said he was surprised that “such an eminent newspaper” would write such a story in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy.
“This is a tragic incident and I was very surprised and disappointed to see the tone of the article written by the New York Times, surprised at them,” Mr. Kenny said after a meeting in Downing Street with British Prime Minister David Cameron.
Mr. Cameron, according to the Irish Times, prefaced his remarks by expressing sympathy to relatives and friends of those who had died or had been injured in the accident.
Former president Mary McAleese, in her criticism of the Times, said the journalists who wrote the article on the Berkeley balcony collapse demonstrated a “sociopathic dissociation” from the suffering of family members of the dead and injured.
She said the Times “should be hanging its head in shame” following a report which had termed the J-1 visa exchange program as an “embarrassment to Ireland”.
“It’s so insensitive that I would say it is almost dissociated from any sense of human empathy or human feeling, or a sense of human grief,” she told RTÉ Radio today.
“In this moment of intense grief, these journalists - and it was a team of journalists - they cut and paste these most awful stories which represented the most-minute minority,” she said of references to troublesome parties involving J-1 visa holders which were included in the article.
A J-1 visitor to San Francisco herself in 1971, McAleese described the offending segment of the Times report as “journalism at the absolute worst end of the spectrum; it’s indescribably poorly-constructed in every way.”
She said it would have been more appropriate for the journalists to focus on the structural integrity of the balcony.
New York Times public editor, Margaret Sullivan, said that while the piece in question was “insensitive, it would most likely not be removed from the Times website.