Berkeley: One Year On - 'It's the worst thing I've dealt with in 30 years on the job' - emergency responder remembers tragic balcony collapse
One of Berkeley fire department's first responders at the scene of the June 16 balcony collapse remembers the incident as the worst he’s dealt with during his 30-year career.
Fire Captain Rick Guzman (57) was asleep at the fire house at the Berkeley Fire Department, seven blocks away, when the medical call came in for a balcony collapse on Kittredge Street shortly after midnight.
“That got your attention right away. This isn’t a type of call that we go on routinely,” he told independent.ie.
As two ambulances, one fire engine, and one fire truck raced to the scene, the crews believed they would be dealing with an incident involving up to eight students and a balcony collapse from two or three storeys.
But when they arrived outside apartment 405, it was clear that the incident was a lot more serious.
“As we were going down the street, we were going maybe 10mph, I could see all the cops, a lot of students around, basically a lot of commotion going on right on the sidewalk, right outside the building. That’s when I had my first glimpse of what had taken place,” he said.
“You could see everything that had just happened. There were a lot of students lying on the ground not moving… There were a lot of other students that had come from downstairs...they ran downstairs to support their friends. It was pretty chaotic at that point.
“Some of them were comforting and holding some of their friends that had just fallen. Others were taking a few steps back, but I could still see them. It was all these people lying still. Nobody was moving, which I’ll probably never forget."
Guzman said himself and his colleagues soon realised that 13 students had fallen from the balcony and assessed the situation.
The emergency crews set to work at what they deemed “a multi-casualty incident”, which effectively puts local trauma centres on alert that they would be receiving numerous patients.
“We just knew that they were going to have multiple broken bones, internal injuries, and head injuries. So even though on the outside they didn’t look too bad, we knew on the inside that they were going to have major problems.
“We knew that we had to get these people out of there as soon as we could… Out of 13 people that fell at the time, only one was walking which surprised me.”
Students Eoghan Culligan, Lorcan Miller, Nick Schuster, Eimear Walsh, Olivia Burke and Olivia's Irish-American cousin Ashley Donohoe died after falling to the ground when the fourth-floor balcony gave way.
Seven other Irish students, Aoife Beary, Clodagh Cogley, Sean Fahey, Conor Flynn, Jack Halpin, Niall Murray and Hannah Waters, were seriously injured.
The J1 students has been celebrating a 21st birthday party. When they stepped out onto the balcony, they couldn’t know that they were moments away from tragedy.
Four of the students were pronounced dead at the scene. Nine others were transported to hospital within 27 minutes of the emergency crews reaching the scene.
“Luckily a lot of the ambulances were available that night… to get the kids out of there as quick as we could… You didn’t have much time to digest the incident. We just knew that we had to get to work and do something,” he said.
“I even saw some of the police officers also vomiting there just because of what they were visualising at the scene. There were so many kids involved and they would vomit and come back and say ‘ok what do you need us to do’. That stands out.”
A staging area was set up with c-spine equipment and backboards, and a log was taken on each patient, their injuries, and which hospitals they were being transferred to.
While the victims were being tended to, some of the crews were sent to check that the fallen balcony was secure and there were no other casualties on the balcony on which it landed.
“We were concerned that the balcony up above might collapse or that somebody was on the balcony below the one that broke so I just wanted to make sure that nobody was up there so we sent a truck company up there to make sure the balcony was secure," said Captain Guzman.
“It flipped upside down, 180 degrees, and landed perfectly on the balcony just below it, so luckily the balcony stayed on top of the other balcony… there were pieces of it on the ground. It could have been worse if the balcony had dropped all the way to the ground.”
The tragedy left in its wake countless traumatised victims, families, friends and witnesses. For the emergency crews, traumatised too, the debriefing process would last for many months.
Part of this healing process was the journey which some first responders made to Dublin last March to take part in the capital's St Patrick's Day Parade. Captain Guzman and his colleagues met parents of the survivors and the tragic victims.
“The request from some of the families wanting to get together with us and just show a bit of appreciation and gratitude was [important]. We had to deal with a bad call. However, we didn’t have to deal with losing a son or a daughter. So I felt it was a good call for us to go there in number and show support for the families who were grieving.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like what the Irish community did for us and for themselves. It was just an incredible show of support."