Berkeley victim’s parents contest planned inspections

Inspectors’ recommendations do not go far enough, parents of Ashley Donohoe say

When City of Berkeley building inspectors concluded that severe dry rot in wooden support beams caused the balcony collapse that killed six students in California last month, they also made a series of recommendations to prevent such a tragedy happening again.

One recommendation was that all exterior, elevated wooden balconies, or any parts of those balconies exposed to weather, be inspected within six months and every five years thereafter by a builder, engineer, architect or structural pest control licensee.

The inspections would verify that the balconies are safe, in adequate working condition and “free from hazardous dry rot, fungus, deterioration, decay or improper alternation,” the inspectors said.

Four weeks on from one of the worst accidents involving Irish people overseas, the proposed change to the City of Berkeley’s building rules does not go far enough for one family affected by the tragedy.


George and Jackie Donohoe, through their lawyers, San Francisco firm Rains Lucia Stern, wrote to city officials on Friday raising concerns about the recommendation put forward by the inspectors just one week after the tragic accident at 2020 Kittredge Street.

The motivation of the Donohoes who lost their daughter Ashley (22) and niece Olivia Burke (21) in the accident, is to prevent another tragedy like theirs occurring.


“The City of Berkeley must take all measures to ensure this does not happen again,” their lawyers say in the letter.

The couple describe the recommendation for inspections every five years as “completely inadequate” and instead want annual maintenance inspections “at least once a year.”

They believe that if the city had inspected the Library Gardens building and the fourth-floor balcony at the Unit 405 apartment within five years of it being built in 2007, they would have discovered the dry rot and “red-tagged” the balcony long before this year.

The Donohoe family’s letter was sent ahead of a meeting of the elected Berkeley City Council on Tuesday when they will vote on the recommendations by the building inspections staff.

The letter was sent to Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates and officials including city manager Christine Daniel, deputy city manager Dee Williams-Ridley and the city attorney Zach Cowan.

A spokesman for the city said the council will vote on stricter requirements on materials used in balconies, and on increased ventilation of and access to balconies to identify and prevent dry rot.


To make their case for more frequent inspections, lawyers for the Donohoes outline in detail in their letter how dry rot develops and proffer research from the Abertay University in Dundee, Scotland and microbiologists.

For dry rot to occur in wood, there needs to be moisture content above 30 per cent, normal temperatures and the presence of dry rot fungi spores, they say.

The research they cite says that fungus can take hold in as little as 12 weeks and cause damage in under a year.

Dry rot

Initials inspections of buildings under construction will identify bad design or construction early on, while yearly inspections would prevent long-term issues leading to dry rot developing, they say.

Annual inspections will inevitably lead to higher costs for building owners but the Donohoe family’s lawyers believe public safety concerns must trump the interests of builders and property owners.

“Using a five-year period of inspections almost gives you an appearance that City of Berkeley officials will be more concerned about what the building owners and the building contractors are worried about than about public safety,” said their attorney Eustace de Saint Phalle.

The family believes inspections at least on an annual basis are the only safe solution.

“If the City of Berkeley wants to prevent another tragedy, these required maintenance inspections should be done, at a minimum, every year,” the family’s lawyers in their letter.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

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