The Berkeley balcony collapse of 2015, which resulted in the deaths of six students, reminded Californian senator Jerry Hill of an incident in the state five years earlier.
In 2010, some 30km across San Francisco Bay in the city of San Bruno, a gas pipe explosion spewed a ball of fire into the sky, killing eight people and destroying 38 homes.
Last August, the Pacific Gas and Electric Company was convicted on several related charges, notably for misleading investigators. Prosecutors said the company violated safety regulations designed to assess potentially dangerous pipelines. It had been a failure of checks and balances.
Money was diverted from a safety operations fund, and instead used for executive compensation and bonuses, an investigation found.
“It has been a constant fight for me over the last six years, to get to the root cause of that, and we did,” says Hill, from his office in Sacramento.
A year and a half ago, when the images of the collapsed balcony at the fourth storey of a Berkeley apartment complex began to dominate local news bulletins, Hill knew something wasn’t right.
“When I heard about the collapse, based on my experience with [San Bruno], I just thought: what happened? How could this regulating body license the contractor? It immediately raised red flags for me.”
The reports of suspected faulty building standards led Hill and former senate colleague Loni Hancock on a 15-month pursuit of legislation to bring contractors' practices into sharp focus.
A few days after the collapse, Hill visited the Library Gardens apartment complex on Kittredge Street where the incident happened.
‘Something was not right’
Five Irish J-1 students – Olivia Burke, Niccolai Schuster, Lorcán Miller, Eoghan Culligan and Eimear Walsh (all 21) – and Irish-American student Ashley Donohoe (22) fell to their deaths in the early hours of June 16th, 2015, when the fourth-floor balcony they were standing on collapsed. Several others were badly injured at the 21st birthday party.
“We saw the devastation to life and the loss of life and then it became more painful as we learned of the youth, the age of the victims,” Hill said.
"The international aspect of this always raises concerns and a sensitivity. We always want our visitors to be treated right and this was like a slap in the face to California.
“It became very obvious that something was not right. Then, as the investigation proceeded, with the media and the identification of the contractor and the problems that they had, it became very clear that we needed to take some action because of the vacuum of information that the licensing board had.”
Hill routinely talks about the €23 million in legal settlements made by Segue Construction – the Library Gardens builder – regarding previous cases and the fact this information had not been available to regulators.
A week after the students died, city inspectors found the balcony had beams that were rotten because of water damage. Two days later a criminal investigation was initiated but ultimately no charges were brought on the basis of insufficient evidence.
Back in Sacramento – the administrative centre of California – Hill and Hancock set about drawing up a controversial draft Bill that would send a message to the construction industry.
On July 1st, just over two weeks after the collapse, an early version of what would later become Senate Bill 465 emerged.
They had to move quickly because the legislative calendar in California prevents new Bills being drafted after about February. Politicians often “gut and amend” existing Bills, changing language to attach new laws to unrelated Bills that are already in train.
This one aimed to ensure building contractors would have to report details of construction deficits to the Contractors' State Licence Board (CSLB). Doomed to failure, it was voted down by the Assembly Business and Professions Committee on July 14th.
“They [the construction lobbyists] had already worked on committee members behind the scenes, letting them know how bad the legislation was and how it would be impossible to implement,” Hill says.
The problem was California’s litigious environment. Contractors often settle law suits to avoid protracted and costly court cases. The industry worried that revealing the scale of standard settlements could create a misleading impression of companies that are relatively compliant with safety standards.
The first efforts to legislate for what happened to them foundered but the following April, SB465 was revived as politicians, construction lobbyists and regulators sat down to find language that might suit everyone.
The compromise precipitated a series of witness hearings before the committee, which heard from Aoife Beary, one of the injured survivors who was celebrating her 21st birthday party on the night of the collapse.
On August 10th last, she provided an emotional account of the effect that night in June 2015 had had on her life, and that of many others.
“My life has changed forever. I cannot believe why you are even debating this Bill,” Beary said to the committee. “People died.”
The officials also heard from Aoife’s mother, Angela, and Jackie Donohoe, whose daughter Ashley and niece Olivia Burke died.
“I think the emotions raised during that hearing brought home the tragedy and the need for a solution,” Hill says. “[Aoife] was sitting right next to me, within two feet, and I was looking at, and listening to, the painful testimony. Everyone was just glued and emotionally charged.”
Even now, Hill’s voice falters when he thinks about Jackie Donohoe’s explanation of the moments in life she would never share with her daughter.
“You could hear a pin drop. Everyone was engaged in the conversation and focused on what she was saying.”
SB465 easily passed the committee, set on its way by the sad words of the three women. It later progressed to the full floor of the State Assembly, where it was unanimously adopted before being signed into law last September.
It allows for much tighter regulation of building standards, particularly concerning balconies. Separately, the CSLB has begun studying whether or not the previously dismissed idea of access to legal settlements would help them in their work. They will report back to the Senate by next January.
“It took an awfully long time to get something that we thought was so important,” says Hill. “Failing was not an option and so we worked very hard. You can always make it work by amending a Bill to the point that it’s useless.
“This one, after it passed, is not much different to what we were looking at in the beginning. It will have a long legacy that I believe will save lives.”
It is cold comfort, though Berkeley will remain synonymous with industry change. In November, the CSLB moved to revoke the operating licence of Segue Construction.
Hill says the interaction between California’s politicians and the families of those affected by the tragedy played a fundamental role in passing legislation.
They heard them in the committee hearings; the Irish caucus met some of them during a visit to the Republic last summer. Hill, who received a thank you note from Taoiseach Enda Kenny in November, met them in his office as work progressed on drafting the laws.
“It was powerful. It was so powerful for me to see the courage that they exhibited,” he says.
“When something like this happens you can either put your head in the sand or you can stand up and fight for change and that’s what they did. It gave me the strength to continue fighting to make sure that this didn’t happen again.”