The six who died in the Berkeley balcony collapse
By Ray O’Hanlon
Questions were being raised today over the structural integrity of the apartment balcony in Berkeley, California, that collapsed early Tuesday morning and resulted in the deaths of six students, and serious injuries to seven others.
And the names of five Irish J-1 students and one Irish American, a cousin of one of the Irish visitors, have been released.
The dead are: 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 the Irish American victim. She was from Santa Rosa in the Bay Area and a cousin of Olivia Burke.
Four died at the scene and two others were pronounced dead at in hospital, said police.
Some of the survivors are battling life-threatening injuries.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported Wednesday that the small balconies at the Library Gardens apartment complex where the collapse occurred “were designed more as decoration than a sturdy platform to entertain large groups of friends, according to a member of the Berkeley Design Review Committee that approved the project in 2001.”
The Chronicle report stated: “The 176-unit, five-story stucco Library Gardens apartment complex on Kittredge Street in downtown Berkeley came under heavy scrutiny Tuesday morning after six young people, five of them thought to be visiting from Ireland on J-1 student-work visas, fell to their deaths when a fourth-floor balcony collapsed.
“Joshua Kardon, a structural engineer in Berkeley, said that while balconies have collapsed in the past, the accident on Kittredge Street was ‘very disturbing’ because it occurred at a newer building.
“The investigation, he said, will likely look not only at the condition of the wood framing and its ‘failure mechanism,’ but at how the balcony was designed and built — particularly how water would be kept from rotting the wood — and what was found during inspections.”
The tragedy has shocked Ireland where there has been an outpouring of sympathy from political, religious and community leaders.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny read a statement in the Dáil and flags are being flown at half-mast.
Mr. Kenny said his “heart breaks” for the victims and their families.
In an updated statement, Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Charlie Flanagan, said his department and the Irish Consulate in San Francisco continued to provide practical support and assistance to the bereaved, the injured, and the students affected by the tragedy.
“Family members of the deceased and injured are travelling to San Francisco today (Wednesday) where they will be met on arrival by a team from our Consulate in San Francisco. A consular team from my department provided support to them at Dublin Airport before they travelled,” said Flanagan.
And he continued: “Our Consulate in San Francisco is working with the local authorities and Irish community organizations to provide transport and accommodation to those who need it. I would like to thank the Irish community in San Francisco, local residents and the local authorities, all of whom have generously offered assistance and support to those affected by this devastating accident.
“We are also conscious that many Irish students were not physically injured, but were left deeply shocked and saddened by the loss of friends and classmates in this terrible accident. The Consulate has worked with local authorities in Berkeley to set up an incident center in Berkeley, where grief counsellors will be on site and people will also have facilities to make phone calls home.
“I would encourage any families who have concerns about any loved ones in San Francisco and who may require these services to contact the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Consular Response Team on +353-1-418-0200.
“Two officers from embassy in Washington have arrived in San Francisco to provide further support to the Consulate team today, while our consulates in New York and Boston are on standby to assist families travelling via those cities.
“To date, the Department’s Consular Emergency Response Centre has handled over 500 calls from concerned family members and friends and we remain ready to respond.”
A report in the Irish Examiner said that two Irish students asleep in the building had said they were awakened by a loud bang.
Mark Neville, who has been in the U.S. with a J-1 visa, said: “I walked out and I saw rubble on the street and a bunch of Irish students crying.”
“I just heard a bang and a lot of shouting,” said Dan Sullivan.
Meanwhile, Berkeley Mayor, Tom Bates, has laid a wreath outside the apartment building.
He did so Tuesday together with Irish Consul General in San Francisco, Philip Grant. A bagpiper played a lament and an Irish tricolor was laid over the wreath.
Mayor Bates has visited Ireland in the past while his wife, Loni Hancock, is a member of the California State Senate.
Senator Hancock is expected to propose the adjournment of the State Senate on Thursday as a mark of condolence for the bereaved families and the Irish people.
Mayor Bates has also expressed his deep sorrow.
“Our hearts go out to the Irish people, and particularly the parents. We’re going to make sure this never happens again,” he said.
Meanwhile, U.S. Ambassador to Ireland, Kevin O’Malley, has given assurances to the families of the injured that they will not have to worry about medical bills.
Speaking on RTÉ radio, and as reported in the Irish Times, Mr. O’Malley said: “I don’t think any of the physicians or nurses or staff will be concerned about their insurance coverage. They will get the very best care that is available, and that is what is important for today.
“The important thing that I take away from this is that this tragedy occurred in a place where some of the best hospitals in the United States happen to operate. Those students need the very best care they can get in the United States, and they are in the best place where it can be delivered to them.”
Given the extent of the injuries suffered by the survivors, medical costs are certain to astronomical.
Ambassador O’Malley said that about 7,000 J-1 visas were issued to Irish students this year, a figure which is typical.
“It is a very significant part of how we have come to understand each other so well and that we have such a warm, deep relationship,” O’Malley said of the J-1 program.