Berkeley: Students thought sloped balcony was intentional

District attorney given witness accounts from lawyers’ investigation into tragedy

Legal papers show two students at a party in Berkeley last week say they saw a balcony sloping unusually before it collapsed, killing six Irish students. However, they initially believed the slope may have been an intended design rather than a sign of deterioration in the structure.

Lawyers for parents of one of the six victims of the disaster told investigators that two students at the 21st birthday party in the Library Gardens student apartment block when the balcony collapsed on June 16th provided statements about what appeared to be an unusual slope.

The witnesses, who have been named by the lawyers for the parents of Ashley Donohoe (22), Rohnert Park, California, thought the balcony may have been designed with an intended slight slope downwards toward the street.

However, in hindsight the students thought this may be evidence there was a visible deterioration in the balcony structure, according to the lawyers for Ms Donohoe’s family.

San Francisco law firm Rains Lucia Stern, which is representing George and Jackie Donohoe, met Alameda County district attorney Nancy O'Malley on Thursday afternoon shortly after Ms O'Malley announced a criminal and civil investigation into the collapse.

The lawyers presented Ms O’Malley, who is responsible for prosecuting crime in Berkeley, with evidence from their investigation into the tragedy at Kittredge Street showing a litany of ignored problems at the property, including leaks, rot and flooding, dating back years.

The Donohoes, through their lawyers, told the district attorney they were concerned a proper, independent investigation had not yet been done and called for such an inquiry to identify any potential design or construction flaws and determine if any responsible parties should be criminally prosecuted.

The family expressed satisfaction that Ms O’Malley’s office had opened a criminal investigation.

The law firm, whose staff includes former police investigators, handed over a large amount of information and potential leads from its own investigation. The firm produced evidence that it claims shows a history of water infiltration and balcony decay at the property dating back to 2010, referring to an online review posted by one tenant at the property.

Also handed over were photographs showing water staining to the exterior of the fourth- floor balcony before the incident. The lawyers argue that the staining should have made the property's owners BlackRock and management company Greystar on notice that an inspection of the balcony was necessary.

The photographs showing the exterior of the balcony surface were taken in April 2008, July 2009 and April 2011.

The law firm told the district attorney the complex had a history of poor management and failure to respond to maintenance problems. They provided evidence showing complaints to the City of Berkeley’s housing enforcement unit concerning violations including holes in walls, trip hazards from damaged floors, loose metal strips in doorways, inoperable ceiling fans and missing exit signs.

"There is a clear indication both from the evidence in terms of staining on the exterior of the building and the pointed complaints from the residents themselves that the people responsible for the building should have known that there was a looming problem," said Harry Stern, a lawyer at Rains Lucia Stern.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent