Berkeley collapse: Balcony test to determine if crime committed

Tests conducted to discover source of water damage that led to deaths of six students

The US district attorney investigating whether a crime was committed leading to the Berkeley balcony collapse has conducted destructive testing to the remains of the balcony in California.

The testing was carried out to discover the source of water damage to the balcony that led to its collapse in June, killing six students, including five from Dublin who were in the US on J1 summer visas.

In an unusual move, the Alameda County District Attorney, who is responsible for prosecuting crime in Berkeley, permitted representatives for the families of the victims and the property’s owner and manager as well as the contractor that built the apartment block in 2007 to observe the testing.

This was done in anticipation of future civil legal actions potentially involving the families of six victims and the seven survivors of the incident, along with the owner of the apartment block, BlackRock, and the firm which built it, Segue Construction.

"To ensure fairness for any future litigation, a limited number of observers representing the victims' families, the building owner and the construction and maintenance companies were permitted to observe the destructive testing," Alameda County chief assistant district attorney Kevin Dunleavy told The Irish Times.

The district attorney’s office has said that with the testing to the remains of the fourth-floor balcony alongside a third-floor balcony that was removed from the building, it had moved forward “with a significant part of its investigation” into the balcony fall.

The office hired engineering, waterproofing and architectural experts in the summer after consulting with California state regulatory bodies responsible for the construction industry to investigate the condition of the balconies and how they were built.

At the start of this week, the experts hired by the district attorney began carrying out the destructive testing at a secure location in Alameda County where they could view the balconies side by side.

Scaffolding was also erected again at the Library Gardens apartment block on Kittredge Street, the scene of June’s incident, and a construction company was hired to remove parts of the building at the direction of the experts.

Mr Dunleavy said forensic analysis of the materials would be conducted by scientists at an independent laboratory.

“The experts hope to determine the source of the water intrusion that left the balcony in such an unsafe condition,” he said.

Five 21-year-old Dublin students - Eimear Walsh, Eoghan Culligan, Lorcán Miller, Nick Schuster and Olivia Burke - and Ms Burke's Irish-American cousin Ashley Donohoe (22), from Rohnert Park, California - were killed when the fourth-floor balcony they were standing on collapsed at an early-morning 21st birthday party on June 16th.

Seven other Irish students were badly injured in the incident. The last of the injured, Hannah Waters, returned home last month after receiving treatment at a hospital in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Berkeley city officials concluded in a report published in June that dry rot caused by water damage led to the collapse of the balcony.

Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley subsequently announced civil and criminal investigations into the cause of the balcony collapse the week after the incident.

Segue later tried unsuccessfully in court to restrain the district attorney’s investigation, arguing that any damage caused in testing the balconies could disadvantage the company in future civil actions.

A California judge refused to grant the company a temporary restraining order in July.

The district attorney decision to permit the company’s representatives to observe this week’s testing grants in part what Segue had sought in court.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

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