Berkeley mother ‘will not rest’ until balcony rules introduced

Taoiseach meets parents of balcony collapse victim Ashley Donohoe during US visit

The students who were killed when the balcony collapsed at the Library Gardens Apartments, in Berkeley, California (Top LtoR) Ashley Donohoe, Eoghan Culligan, Olivia Burke, (Bottom LtoR) Nick Schuster, Eimear Walsh, and Lorcan Miller. Photograph: The Irish Times

The students who were killed when the balcony collapsed at the Library Gardens Apartments, in Berkeley, California (Top LtoR) Ashley Donohoe, Eoghan Culligan, Olivia Burke, (Bottom LtoR) Nick Schuster, Eimear Walsh, and Lorcan Miller. Photograph: The Irish Times

 

The mother of the Irish-American student killed in last year’s Berkeley balcony collapse has said that she “will not rest” until new standards are introduced to prevent a repeat of the tragedy.

Jackie Donohoe, whose daughter Ashley (22) and niece Olivia Burke (21) were among the six students who died in the June 2015 accident, is pushing for the state of California to introduce stronger standards for materials used on any balcony above a single storey.

She described a bill signed by California governor Jerry Brown in September to increase state regulation of building companies with checkered histories as “only a first step” in her campaign.

Californian building firms should be compelled to use steel in balconies over a certain height, she said. She also wants stronger standards for balconies with annual inspections and to eliminate the practice of construction companies keeping settlements on defects secret from the industry’s regulator and the public.

“I will not rest until this is in place as I do not want to see another family go through the pain and suffering that we’ve all been through,” Ms Donohoe told The Irish Times.

Referring to the “powerful” construction lobby that seeks to prevent “reasonable consumer protection,” she said: “I care less about what builders’ lobbyists think. I’m more about my daughter, my niece and their four friends who died and the seven who were seriously injured.”

She planned to take “all necessary measures” to prevent a recurrence of a similar tragedy.

Ashley Donohoe, Dublin student Olivia Burke and four other Irish students living in California for the summer on J-1 visas - Niccolai Schuster, Lorcán Miller, Eoghan Culligan and Eimear Walsh, all 21 years old - fell to their deaths in the early hours of June 16th, 2015. The fourth-floor balcony they were standing collapsed while they were celebrating a 21st birthday party.

Investigators later concluded that dry rot caused by water intrusion into the balcony’s supporting wooden beams led to the sudden collapse of the deck.

Ms Donohoe and her husband George met Taoiseach Enda Kenny before a Silicon Valley event for Irish businesses in Palo Alto on Wednesday night. The couple live in Rohnert Park, north of San Francisco, and were on the scene within hours of the tragedy.

Mr Kenny told reporters afterwards that he spoke to the Donohoes about the California state bill signed in September and “what remains to be done and the opportunities up ahead to make that more effective, not just for California but eventually hopefully for other states as well.”

He met family members of the other Berkeley victims along with the seven injured survivors of the tragedy privately at Government Buildings last week.

The Taoiseach’s meeting with the Donohoes took place on the same day that California’s construction industry regulator moved to suspend or revoke the licence of the firm that built the balcony.

The Contractors State License Board alleged that the company, Segue Construction, “wilfully departed from or disregarded building plans or specifications, and wilfully departed from accepted trade standards for good and workmanlike specifications.”

The board claimed in formal papers that if the balcony had been built as designed, the load of 13 students was “well within the design limits of the balcony structure.”

Ms Donohoe welcomed the move but suggested that in future a contractor’s license should be attached to a person “so that they can’t go back the following week and get a new license.”

The person holding the license should not be allowed to hold a position of responsibility in another construction company, she said.

In her call for better standards on balcony materials, she said: “Citizens in California should not be the guinea pigs for contractors and construction companies that want to use new materials or designs for balconies.”

Ms Donohoe said the public had a right to know if a company had been involved in secret settlements arising from construction defects in the past.

“You don’t see a doctor with three strikes against him before the medical licensing board revokes his license. Why should the construction company be any different?” she said.

“Why should the construction industry be allowed three strikes until someone dies before the contractors licensing board hears about it?”

In his speech to an audience of about 200 people at the Irish business event, the Taoiseach paid tribute to Ireland’s consul general in San Francisco Philip Grant and Celine Kennelly, executive director at the city’s Irish Immigration Pastoral Centre, and her colleagues for their work with the families of the victims and survivors in the immediate aftermath of the Berkeley tragedy.

Mr Kenny said that they did “an extraordinary public duty in working with those people at a very traumatic time in their lives and displaying enormous empathy and understanding in a true Irish sense of what it was to bring everybody together at a time of great sorrow and great grief.”