Berkeley balcony tragedy stole six young lives

Berkely tragedy: June incident continues to draw empathy from Irish and non-Irish alike

The Irish students who were killed when the balcony collapsed at the Library Gardens apartments, in Berkeley, California. Top, from left, Ashley Donohoe, Eoghan Culligan, Olivia Burke. Above, from left, Niccolai Schuster, Eimear Walsh, Lorcan Miller

The Irish students who were killed when the balcony collapsed at the Library Gardens apartments, in Berkeley, California. Top, from left, Ashley Donohoe, Eoghan Culligan, Olivia Burke. Above, from left, Niccolai Schuster, Eimear Walsh, Lorcan Miller

 

Flowers and candles still dot the Library Gardens in California’s best-known college town, impromptu memorials to the J1-ers who died or were critically injured here.

The “Berkeley balcony” tragedy that stole six young Irish lives and heartlessly injured seven more last June 16th continues to draw empathy from Irish and non-Irish alike. The outpouring of public grief in this long-established Irish emigrant community has been nothing short of remarkable.

J1-ers have been coming here for five decades, and among those who came as students are former president Mary Robinson and Mrs Sabina Higgins, Ireland’s current first lady. Many Bay Area businesses – particularly those along Fisherman’s Wharf or Market Street’s boutiques and bakeries –have come to rely on them.

And it’s apparently mutual, this generosity and empathy shown by non-Irish and Irish Californians towards the victims and their families. Berkeley’s “first responders” or emergency paramedics have been invited to march with police in next year’s St Patrick’s Parade, in a spontaneous departure from the norm.

So far $289,249 has been raised from 2,386 people online over the last five months, to help families of victims cover their costs. The American Ireland Fund gave $100,000.

Masses at Oakland’s Cathedral of Christ the Light and San Francisco’s Saint Mary’s Cathedral were a given – but the largest was at the other end of the state, in San Diego, where many hundreds attended.

The candlelit vigil on Thursday June 18th held at Berkeley’s Civic Center by the Irish Consulate drew more than 800 J1-ers from all over, as well as local police, paramedics, and the firemen who rushed to the scene after the first 911 call – another striking mark of respect.

Announced only on Facebook, the candlelit vigil left indelible images. Irish consul-general Philip Grant estimated that as many as 80 per cent of local J1-ers were present. After the ceremony, many walked to the balcony site at Kittredge Street to add to the candles and flower tributes.

San Francisco’s Irish Immigration Pastoral Center (IIPC) was front and centre in the fundraising effort, helped by a sister organisation in Chicago, and led by IIPC’s Fr Brendan McBride and Celine Kennelly. (Fr McBride has since been recognised with a presidential medal for his decades of service with immigrants.)

The tragedy has affected local consciousness in other ways. On October 28th, Berkeley’s mayor Tom Bates and President Higgins wielded spades together to plant two strawberry trees in the downtown Berkeley park near the site of the tragedy. The first responders from ambulance units looked on, with police and public safety workers.

“This event is not going to go unnoticed. It’s not going to go down as a footnote in history,” promised Bates. “We are going to change the way we do business in Berkeley so it never, ever happens again.”

Last month a San Francisco firm filed lawsuits in Alameda County against the builders on behalf of the six families. The suit said the builders used cheaper “strand board” instead of plywood to construct the balcony, and that other builders “failed to waterproof” the deck and that landlords ignored the “presence of mushrooms” on the deck and that construction shortcuts ignored by builders, owners and landlords all led to the June apartment balcony collapse.

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