Berkeley tragedy: Mourners gather to pay respects to young students

Grieving families, friends and strangers attend Oakland church where four of the six Irish J-1 students lay in repose

Family and friends of six Irish students killed in Tuesday's balcony collapse in Berkeley, California, are gathering for the joint funeral of Ashley Donohoe (22) and Olivia Burke (21).

The funeral of the cousins takes place this evening at 6.30pm (10.30am local time) in St Joseph's Catholic Church in Cotati near Ms Donohoe's home in Rohnert Park in Sonoma County, north of San Francisco.

The bodies of Eimear Walsh, Niccolai (Nick) Schuster, Lorcán Miller and Eoghan Culligan - all 21, all from Dublin - will be flown to Ireland this evening, arriving in Dublin on Sunday morning.

Last night family, friends and strangers paid their respects to the four students as their remains lay in repose in a church in Oakland.


Their images were projected onto the four white bevel-edged corner walls of St Columba Church as mourners filed in.

An Irish flag was draped over the altar in the middle of the small church, at the centre of a diamond formed by chairs for the mourners.

At each of the four sides of the diamond stood a casket. The photographs of the four bright, smiling faces were joined those of Ashley and Olivia.

“Please bring memories, laugher and stories to share,” read the invite to the service “celebrating the lives of Ashley Donohoe and Olivia Burke.”

Mourners were asked to make donations to Cystic Fibrosis Ireland in lieu of flowers at the service. At the ceremony in Oakland last night, the families of the four students were the first to pay their respects as the church was closed to the public and the media.

They were followed by close friends and then by groups of Irish J-1 students who had been bussed to the church. Among those who paid their respects at the church were Minister of State for the Diaspora Jimmy Deenihan, Berkeley mayor Tom Bates and the city's chief of police Michael Meehan.

Officials from the police department and the fire department, which responded within minutes to the balcony collapsing at 12.41am on Tuesday, also attended.

Older African-American parishioners of St Columba's helped Fr Aidan McAleenan, a native of Banbridge, Co Down, at the ceremony and served refreshments afterwards to the Irish mourners.

The remains of the four students will be flown back to Ireland on a scheduled Aer Lingus EI146 flight from San Francisco at 5.20pm, landing into Dublin at around 11.30am tomorrow.

By 10pm last night the four caskets had been loaded into four black hearses that sat on San Pablo Avenue in Oakland ready for the journey to San Francisco International Airport and onward to Dublin.

Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charlie Flanagan, has asked that the privacy of the families as they travel back to Ireland.

“It is essential that the families of the victims of the Berkeley tragedy be given the space they need to grieve. I appeal for their privacy to be fully respected as they make the difficult journey home tomorrow,” he said in a statement.

The six students had only arrived in San Francisco just weeks before the tragic accident at the Library Gardens student accommodation block at 2020 Kittredge Street in Berkeley.

Ms Walsh, Mr Miller and Mr Schuster were students at UCD. Ms Burke studied at Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology and Mr Culligan at Dublin Institute of Technology.

Ms Donohoe, the daughter of Dublin parents who emigrated to the US, studied at Sonoma State University near San Francisco.

Speaking ahead of the Oakland ceremony yesterday, Mr Deenihan said that service was organised to allow the family, friends and other J-1 students to spend private time with the loved ones. He paid tribute to the support that the families had shown each other during a time of such grief and trauma.

“I am really inspired with the level of togetherness between the families,” he said. “They’re helping each other, they are consoling each other because it is only themselves really that know the pain that they are going through. Nobody else can really verbalise this.”

A mass will be held this evening in Dublin’s Procathedral dedicated to the six Irish students. A book of condolence has been opened there.

More than €247,000 ($280,000) has been donated to groups providing assistance to those affected by the tragedy.

The “Irish J1 Berkeley Tragedy Fund” on had collected €158,000 ($180,000) by Saturday afternoon, while the American Ireland Fund donated €88,000 ($100,000) earlier in the week.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

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