Sunday 22 January 2017

'Balcony deaths remind us we're not invincible'

Amy Finn

Published 13/06/2016 | 02:30

Irish J1 students enjoying the sunshine by the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco are (standing, l-r) Kieran O’Brien, Peggy McSweeeney, Martin Noonan and Peter Dooley; (seated, l-r) Ciaran Moss, Kevin O’Connell, Grace McCarthy, Orla McSweeeney , David Coughlan, Emma Kelly and Eimear Madigan. Photo: Patrick Power
Irish J1 students enjoying the sunshine by the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco are (standing, l-r) Kieran O’Brien, Peggy McSweeeney, Martin Noonan and Peter Dooley; (seated, l-r) Ciaran Moss, Kevin O’Connell, Grace McCarthy, Orla McSweeeney , David Coughlan, Emma Kelly and Eimear Madigan. Photo: Patrick Power

San Francisco has once again welcomed its share of J1 students from colleges and universities across Ireland, lured by the west coast's sunshine and laid-back attitude.

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But this time around, there is a shadow of deep sadness cast over the coming of the new arrivals, with many mindful of the horrific events of June 16 last year.

The J1 experience is similar among all Irish students based in the Bay Area - settling into a new place and getting the hang of the BART, the transit system that brings them across the bay, hopping on the F tram to Fisherman's Wharf for work each morning, making new friends and taking in the breathtaking landmarks of San Francisco.

The general consensus is that Berkeley is the place to live.

"We stayed in a hostel for three nights in San Francisco," explained Peggy McSweeney (20), a Tralee IT psychiatric nursing student from Cork.

"I wouldn't be used to a big city, so it was lovely going to Berkeley because it's like a country town."

But Tralee student Orla McSweeney said the deaths last year were "always in the back of our minds.

"We are over here having the time of our lives, living it up, and to think that this time last year, a simple accident changed so many lives.

"When we are on the street or on the BART, people ask us, 'Are you guys Irish?' and they would sympathise with us for what happened in Berkeley, even though we didn't know the people involved."

"I really like living in Berkeley," said David Coughlan (21), from Clare, who is studying at NUI Galway.

He added: "We can see Irish all around, walking down the street. It feels like a home away from home."

The group of friends live close to the apartment complex on 2020 Kittredge Street, the location of the devastating balcony collapse, and have visited the makeshift shrine dedicated to those who died.

David thinks that J1 students might be a bit more cautious following the tragedy. "Before it happened, we would have thought we were invincible," he said.

"But it really brought it home that things can go really wrong."

Irish Independent

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