Last Sunday the families of the four students still being treated in hospital after they were injured in the balcony collapse in Berkeley, on June 16th, released a statement.
The families of Aoife Beary, Clodagh Cogley, Niall Murray and Hannah Waters thanked everyone who had helped them, both at home in Ireland and in the San Francisco Bay Area. They addressed those who had been at the scene of the tragedy and those at the California hospitals who had treated them over the subsequent weeks.
The accident left six dead – Eimear Walsh, Ashley Donohoe, Olivia Burke, Niccolai Schuster, Eoghan Culligan and Lorcán Miller.
Of the seven injured, three returned home last month: Sean Fahey, Conor Flynn and Jack Halpin.
The four still being treated in California last weekend have been through six hospitals in the six weeks since the accident, an indication of the injuries they sustained in a 12-metre fall from a fourth-floor balcony on to concrete below.
Among their injuries were a traumatic brain injury, a severed spinal cord, shattered knees and elbows, broken limbs, cracked ribs and punctured lungs. In some cases new complications emerged as they were operated on. Pain medication was, for some, intense.
The job of the doctors, nurses and other staff at the hospitals has been to help piece these broken young bodies back together, while the families help them deal with the trauma of what they have been through.
That task of rebuilding and rehabilitating has fallen now to Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, south of San Francisco. For the students it is a tough experience.
"Each week somebody is discovering the complexity of their circumstances," says one parent, who, like others, doesn't want to be identified when they meet The Irish Times to talk about what happened.
“Each of these kids had a serious fall . . . It’s a miracle that they weren’t killed, let alone be able to walk again. They are all picking their way through the physical, psychological and emotional circumstances of what has happened to them,” the father says.
They keep around-the-clock bedside vigils, to help feed the students and in some cases to be there in the event of a nightmare.
Intensive rehabilitation at Santa Clara includes recreational therapy, helping the patients to find things they enjoy, such as art or board games. Trips out of the hospital to a restaurant allow them to adapt to living in a wheelchair and to see how they would cope.
For Aoife Beary a serious brain injury has kept her in the rehabilitation trauma centre, where intensive-care and rehabilitation staff can manage her recovery. The others are undergoing more intensive rehabilitation in a centre that specialises in spinal-cord and orthopaedic injuries.
Aoife Beary faces a difficult recovery, and cannot remember what happened to her.
The party she is unable to remember began like any other. On Monday, June 15th, Aoife was celebrating her 21st birthday with her closest friends, some of whom she had travelled abroad with in previous summers, to work in Vancouver, in Canada, in 2013, and to Thailand and Vietnam in 2014.
This summer’s J-1 experience in the US was to be another adventure for the gang.
During the day Aoife’s phone buzzed with birthday text messages from family and friends. One was from Eimear O’Doherty, her 24-year-old first cousin, wishing her a happy 21st and hoping she’d enjoy the birthday celebrations later.
“She’d been planning the trip for months. She loved travel and had gone places with the same group of girls. I met her the day before she left, and she was all excited after finding a place to stay,” she says. “People might think these were kids on the first trip abroad, going wild. It wasn’t the case. They were well educated and well travelled. They’d been away on previous summers.”
The party in apartment 405 of the Library Gardens apartment building, at 2020 Kittredge Street, wasn’t particularly lively. It was, after all, a Monday night. A birthday banner had been hung on the wall. Aoife had been given a heart-shaped balloon as a present.
By midnight a number of students had already turned in, as they had work the next day. Others were thinking of doing the same. Some friends had dropped in and stayed only briefly.
Students often popped in to say hello in that apartment block and the area around Kittredge Street, home to many of the several hundred Irish students who live in the Bay Area. “Normally when there is a party on in Berkeley we are all invited,” says a J-1 student who lived nearby.
It was early in the summer, so most of the students had arrived just a week or two earlier. At the party the students chatted about who had or hadn’t found a job yet, about meeting other people in California they knew from home and about how they were settling in.
The party was drifting into Tuesday morning when talk turned to where some would go next. Berkeley Police Department received a call at 12.02am about noise from the Library Gardens apartment. About four minutes after that call a patrol car dispatched to respond to the complaint was redirected to check reports of shots being fired – a higher priority – in south and west Berkeley.
The two-bedroom apartment where Aoife and five friends lived was in downtown Berkeley, so there were plenty of late-night places around.
Two favourite spots for Irish J-1 students are Kip's Bar, on Durant Avenue, and Pappy's Grill & Sports Bar, on Telegraph Avenue, about a 15-minute walk from the apartment. The bars were popular among the group at the Kittredge Street party.
Bruna, a bartender at Kip’s, says the Irish students often came in at 12.30am, half an hour before it stopped serving. They could enjoy being out in the bar next to the University of California campus without having to spend a lot of money through the night.
At the party Aoife had been the centre of attention. Friends gravitated towards her on the balcony to wish her a happy birthday. There were photographs and selfies to mark the occasion.
Most of the students were from south Co Dublin. Around Aoife were her closest friends, Eimear Walsh and Olivia Burke, and Ashley Donohoe, Olivia's cousin from Rohnert Park, in Sonoma County, about an hour's drive north of Berkeley. Aoife, Eimear and Olivia had all attended Loreto College in Foxrock, Co Dublin. The three women had remained close despite going separate ways after secondary school.
Family bonds and a childhood as cousins made Olivia and Ashley particularly close. Ashley’s parents, George and Jackie, emigrated from Ireland to the US in 1989, and the two didn’t let the distance keep them apart. They regularly travelled between Ireland and the US to see each other.
On another part of the balcony were a group of young men. Most of the core group had studied at St Mary's College in Rathmines in Dublin: Niccolai (Nic) Schuster, Eoghan Culligan, Jack Halpin and Sean Fahey.
Nic Schuster, Eoghan Culligan and Niall Murray, another of the group on the balcony, grew up not far from each other. Another member of their group, Conor Flynn, had played football with Nic in Terenure. Sean Fahey and Niall Murray both went to NUI Galway. Several of the group who travelled to the US for a J-1 summer had been on a skiing holiday in Europe last winter.
Olivia, Eimear and Niall all worked at the same place in San Francisco: Hana Zen, a sushi bar and Japanese restaurant at Pier 39, a shopping and sightseeing area on the waterfront.
Angie Louie, the restaurant’s owner, hired Niall first. She thought he was “magnificent” and asked him whether he had any friends who might be free to work at the restaurant. Two weeks later Olivia and Eimear were hired as hostesses. Eimear impressed Louie, too; Louie planned to promote her to a server, which brought more tips.
Hannah Waters, from Castleknock, and a former student at Loreto College on St Stephen's Green in Dublin, was also on the balcony. She had travelled to San Francisco with a friend who studied medicine at University College Dublin with Lorcán Miller and Eimear Walsh.
Lorcán and Hannah were among a group of friends staying at another apartment in the Library Gardens complex.
Hannah was the only student in the group not on a J-1 visa. She travelled to the US on a 90-day holiday visa.
Clodagh Cogley, from Milltown in Dublin, and a student at Trinity College Dublin, was also on the balcony. She is friends with Hannah, Niall and Jack and also knew Eimear.
The apartment was rented in the names of Aoife, Olivia and Eimear. Three other Irish women lived there, and another two friends were due to join them in Berkeley in July.
People were on and off the balcony throughout the party, to pour another drink, to mingle with others. One male student had just walked off the balcony to go to the toilet; some of those still on the balcony talked about plans to head somewhere else. Calls were made and texts sent to other friends, to check out where they were.
At 12.41am Gerald Robinson, a Berkeley resident, was sitting in his car around the corner on Shattuck Street, after leaving a cinema, when he heard two loud ka-chunks. “I didn’t place it. I figured it was some problem with a lift-gate at the back of truck,” he says. Then he heard screaming and, minutes later, saw numerous fire trucks and ambulances go by.
The fourth-floor balcony the 13 students were standing on fell in two motions, in the first collapsing on to the balcony below and in the second falling to the street below.
The 13 students were thrown out on to the street, on to a tree, a metal grille and concrete below. It was described as like being thrown out of a basket. Some managed to hold of each other. Jack Halpin grabbed Clodagh Cogley, helping to break her fall.
One of the emergency responders, who was third on the scene, says that in his many years working in Berkeley he had never seen anything as bad as this. “Not as horrific as this,” he says. He went from body to body, looking for signs of life and a response, passing on to the more serious cases as he triaged them one by one. “It’s a scene that will stay fresh in my mind forever.”
The first responders were well prepared. The previous day Berkeley's emergency-response crews had trained in a simulated exercise for a multiple-victim incident. "The good thing about it was that the Berkeley fire department were getting ready for something," Fr Brendan McBride, who runs the Irish Immigration Pastoral Centre in San Francisco, says. "They were on the scene in about four minutes. It was absolutely amazing. I am sure lives were saved because of that."
By the time police arrived at the scene some of the 30 or so students who had been inside the fourth-floor apartment had come down to the street to help their friends. Some were kneeling by their friends’ sides, whispering to them and doing whatever they could to help.
Normally the emergency responders would have asked the students to step aside, but they could see that they were helping.
Four died at the scene: the cousins Olivia Burke and Ashley Donohoe, Eimear Walsh and Lorcán Miller. Five were gravely injured.
Four, despite their serious injuries, remained conscious after the accident: Clodagh Cogley, Conor Flynn, Jack Halpin and Sean Fahey.
One of the men told an emergency responder as he was moved from the scene, “Tell my mum I love her.”
The emergency responders sent the victims to different hospitals depending on the seriousness of their injuries.
The most seriously hurt were brought to Highland Hospital, a level 1 trauma hospital, 10km from Kittredge Street, used to dealing with cases of horrific injuries in Oakland, a city where about 100 people are murdered every year. Aoife Beary and Hannah Waters were sent to Highland.
Two additional deaths occurred soon after the accident. Nic Schuster died at Highland and Eoghan Culligan at Eden.
As Gerald Robinson was leaving his parking space outside the cinema on Shattuck Street, two Irish students, a man and a woman, flagged him down, asking to be brought to Highland.
“They were terribly distraught,” he says. “The girl kept talking – the guy kept trying to comfort her. She kept talking about who was on the balcony and why did they fall? She kept saying, ‘I was on the balcony, and why didn’t I fall?’ ”
Robinson brought them to Highland and sat in the reception area for an hour with about 10 other students who had made their own way there.
“They were in total shock and sitting extremely silently, with tears in their eyes, just hoping whoever was there at the hospital wasn’t seriously injured – and, if they were, hoping they wouldn’t die.”
Under privacy rules, California hospitals cannot release details of injured patients. The students were getting more information from home via text messages and social media than they were from the hospitals.
At one point, some time after 2am, one male student became hysterical at Highland’s reception because hospital staff wouldn’t provide him with information about his friends. A staff member told him he would have to leave if he didn’t calm down.
The students huddled close to each other, keeping a close eye on their phones and walking off into a private corner when a call came in.
“It was text after text, phone call after phone call to ask them what they knew. They were trying to figure out who was on the balcony and wasn’t. They were just in a state of shock,” Robinson says.
At about 2.30am Philip Grant, Ireland's Consul General in San Francisco, received a phone call. He is the Irish representative for the western United States, and during the summer he is busy tending to matters related to the estimated 2,970 J-1 students in California, 43 per cent of all those on the Irish visa programme in the United States. About 700 or 800 of those were in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The consulate calls it the green phone: it’s the duty phone, the out-of-office mobile number people call in an emergency. Most police forces in the San Francisco Bay Area have it.
Grant checked a message. It was the duty officer at Berkeley police department, calling to say there had been a balcony collapse at Library Gardens on Kittredge Street. As soon as he heard the name of the building Grant assumed that every one of them was Irish – a case involving an issue with a passport had crossed his desk some weeks earlier, concerning an Irish woman who lived in the building.
He called the Department of Foreign Affairs back in Dublin, Ambassador Anne Anderson in Washington DC and the Irish Immigration Pastoral Centre in San Francisco, which is called into action to help any time an Irish person is caught up in an accident in the region.
As they came out of surgery Grant was able to get the full list of the names of the injured. The coroner released the names of the deceased.
At about 6am Fr McBride and the pastoral centre’s programme co-ordinator, Natasha McParland, arrived at Highland Hospital, where they found a big group of students from the party huddled together in reception. They arranged for blankets and pillows to be brought to a small chapel where they could sleep. Tea and coffee were brought in.
“They were away from everybody and had their own space,” says McBride. “It was good for them. At that stage it was really all about finding out how everyone was. It was information-gathering. Some of them went to the other hospitals, and they were communicating. It was trying to piece things together. That went on for a good while.”
McParland says that time in the oratory still haunts her. “They were devastated and knew some had passed away . . . One moment they thought their friend was fine, and someone just shouted that someone was dead, and another person was dead. The number just kept increasing, and I was thinking to myself, When is the number going to stop increasing?”
A sixth death
The students didn’t know what had happened to Lorcán Miller. They rang friends at Eden and John Muir, but he was in neither hospital.
His parents had to be informed before they could be told. News of Lorcán’s death brought the number of dead, as they were hearing it, to six.
“The previous bits of news had just sunken in, and they were sobbing, and another wave hit them,” McParland says.
Among the first to be called were George and Jackie Donohoe, Ashley’s parents, in nearby Rohnert Park. Jackie was on the scene soon after the accident. She saw Ashley and her cousin Olivia.
“They were holding each other. They weren’t twins, but they were very close,” Msgr Dan Whelton said at their funeral mass.
Other parents found out through early calls back to Dublin made by students who were at the party. The telephone calls sparked a dash for the airports and the earlier flights to California, while breaking-news reports at home prompted horrified family with J-1 students in the San Francisco Bay Area to try to contact their children.
The parents of one of the injured students were escorted from south Co Dublin by three squad cars and fast-tracked through security to the steps of a US-bound plane. It took just 20 minutes to get there.
Another mother was allowed to fly without a passport through New York to San Francisco because she couldn't get home to Dublin to pick it up. In response to the emergency, US Customs and Immigration, Delta Airlines and Shannon Airport gave her a pass.
Aer Lingus offered free flights to and from San Francisco for the family members and made space on fully booked flights. The company was applauded for its handling of the tragedy.
On the flight that carried the coffins of Eimear Walsh, Lorcán Miller, Eoghan Culligan and Nic Schuster to Dublin on the Saturday after the accident, the pilot announced to passengers that they were bringing children of Ireland home. It was an emotional flight for all on board.
Philip Grant made the journey to San Francisco International Airport and back many times over the week, to meet the parents of each of the victims and survivors as they arrived from Ireland and again as they left.
In those heartwrenching days, as preparations were made for the return of the six deceased students, there were many poignant moments.
The Walshes wanted to see where Eimear had worked, and went to Hana Zen for a meal in the days after the accident. Angie Louie, its owner, gave them Eimear’s pay cheque for her first two weeks of work at the restaurant. “They did not really want to get it,” Louie says, but she insisted they take it. “This is your daughter’s work, and this is for her effort,” she told them.
There was also the kindness of strangers: a taxi driver refusing to accept a fare from a family member being transported from the hospital to a hotel; a bouquet of flowers left in a hotel room while the occupants were at their child’s hospital bedside; deliveries of Barry’s tea bags, freshly baked soda bread and Kerrygold butter.
An online service called Munchery that delivers chef-made meals gave the families a lot of free credit to feed themselves in San Francisco.
Back in Dublin, dinners kept appearing, day after day, for siblings left behind after the parents flew to San Francisco.
“Anything that anyone could do, from the second that we found out what happened, they did it. People moved mountains to help us,” says one mother at Santa Clara.
A GoFundMe account set up for donations has raised $281,000 (€255,000). The American Ireland Fund donated $100,000. A concert at the Academy in Dublin, featuring Mundy and Jape, among others, last month raised €30,000, and a “Fun Raiser” tag-rugby competition in aid of Aoife Beary in Donnybrook last weekend raised $10,000. In response the families have said they found the support “overwhelming and humbling”.
"It's been great to see the reaction at home," Eimear O'Doherty, who helped organise the tag rugby, says. "Friends, colleagues and people who didn't know her turned out to support her. It was lovely to see. Aoife has done a lot of charity work herself and was raising money for Our Lady's Children's Hospital in Crumlin recently. So it was nice to see that people out there were supporting her."
One businesswoman in Berkeley, who didn’t want to be named but called herself the Janitor, has kept the memorial at the corner of the building at 2020 Kittredge Street neat and tidy. Notes to the victims were getting sun-bleached or wet, so she stuck them in a scrapbook and taped some pens to it. When the book filled up she bought a new one. She throws away burnt-out candles and dead flowers each day. “I’m amazed that new flowers show up almost every day,” she says. The consulate has sent her a bouquet of flowers as a thank you.
The families also expressed gratitude to the other students who were at the party. “They too are victims, and they also have to deal with the trauma of this terrible loss. We salute them all as genuine heroes,” they said.
The J-1 students at the party returned to Dublin for the funerals. Some then returned to the US to be with their injured friends in California.
Other students who were at the party, or knew the survivors, visit regularly. “They’re very good in coming to visit them in hospital,” Aoife’s cousin Eimear O’Doherty says. “They’re down once a week, if not more. It’s not easy, because of the travel costs and everything, but they’re very supportive. They’re traumatised by what happened as well.”
A month’s-mind vigil on Sunday, July 19th, gave the families of the injured an opportunity to meet the paramedics, police and firefighters who tended to their children after the tragedy. For the first responders it was an emotional occasion. They wished they could have saved more, one told the mother of one of the injured.
“They do this every day, and for them to be traumatised like that . . .” says the father of another of the injured students. “We were in our cocoon every day, dealing with our own situations. In terms of how it affected other people, that’s when it first hit me.”
Most of the Berkeley families are hiring California lawyers in light of the civil actions that will likely be taken against the owner of the Library Gardens building, Blackrock, the property’s management company, Greystar, and the firm that built the block, Segue Construction.
Several Dublin law firms have been helping the families to pick local US attorneys to pursue legal actions for damages and to seek justice on behalf of the dead. City of Berkeley investigators have concluded that dry rot caused by water intrusion was to blame for the collapse.
Separate from the potential civil actions, the Alameda County district attorney, who is responsible for prosecuting crime in Berkeley, is carrying out a parallel criminal and civil investigation to determine the source of the water that led to the dry rot in the balcony and whether anything rises to the level of a crime having been committed.
There is a separate battle on the insurance front. Although the students were covered by J-1 travel insurance, some families say they are under pressure to relocate the students to Ireland to continue recovery.
Confusion at times about who was going to foot the bill for medical expenses and rehabilitation was one reason why family, friends and students organised the fundraisers at home.
Although the families have been keen to look back and say thanks, they are concerned about managing the expectations of people at home, to let family, friends and strangers know that their children will need space, as the “road to recovery is far from straight”.
When they get home to Ireland the students will go initially to an acute-care hospital, then move on to the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin, or a similar medical centre to continue their recovery.
“We hope that our children will be able to make their way home in the coming weeks and months when they are individually ready and sufficiently strong enough to do so,” they said. “We only ask that, when they eventually do return, their many friends and well-wishers will be able to contain themselves a little longer until they are really ready, physically and emotionally, to reach out and invite them to meet.”
Eimear O’Doherty arrived in San Francisco 10 days after the accident with Aoife’s brother and sister, both teenagers. Even though Aoife had been moved out of intensive car the extent of her injuries was jolting. “You have a picture in your head. You expect to see her up and about and doing stuff, and then it’s a shock to see her in bed,” she says.
She’d like to think Aoife recognised her, but she’s not sure. “It’s hard to know. It’s very slow; things don’t change a lot on a daily basis. The doctors say the numbers and statistics are heading in the right direction. She still has a lot of injuries. We really don’t know the full extent of them . . .
“She seemed to be responding to her name, and seems to hear and understand things, but she’s not speaking. The advice is to keep communicating with her, keep asking her questions, but not to overstimulate her. She can get tired very easily.”
A return trip
Another of the injured, Clodagh Cogley, had a moment of progress this week. The woman who wrote on Facebook the week after the accident that she intended to honour the dead by “living the happiest and most fulfilling life possible” returned home on Friday.
“Enjoy a good dance and the feeling of grass beneath your feet like it’s the last time because in this crazy world you never know when it might be,” she wrote in a post on June 24th.
For the three still in California the return trip is farther away as they continue their recovery. For all of them, including the families and friends of the six students lost in the tragedy, the emotional journey back from Berkeley will be far longer and tougher.
Additional reporting by Carl O’Brien