Berkeley: One Year On - 'People came from Ireland with just clothes on their backs because they left so quickly' - Irish priest offered support to victims' parents
Published 15/06/2016 | 11:00
The Irish priest who was instrumental in offering support in the aftermath of the Berkeley tragedy has been bolstered by the strength of those who were injured in the balcony collapse.
"In the midst of all their pain, they were really strong and positive about getting their lives back together," Fr Brendan McBride of San Francisco's Irish Immigration Pastoral Centre (IIPC) told independent.ie.
"That was a great thing for me, that those who were injured were going to make things happen in their lives."
Six young lives were stolen and seven more were seriously injured in the heartbreaking accident on June 16 last year in the Californian city, popular with Irish J1 students.
''For the anniversary we are gathering in Oakland [just south of Berkeley] as the volunteers who were involved need the support, they need to be together," said Fr Brendan McBride.
"They were very emotionally involved with the parents [after the balcony collapse] - and for the parents, this is going to be a particularly difficult time."
Fr McBride recalls receiving the call in the early hours of the morning from Executive Director of the IIPC's Celine Kennelly to tell him that emergency services had responded to an apartment complex where a number of Irish J1 students had been celebrating a 21st birthday party.
"Myself, one of the directors and a staff member went to Berkeley and met with the police and the fire department just to get an idea of what had happened," he said.
"It was only then that the enormity of the tragedy hit."
Five Dublin students - Eoghan Culligan, Lorcan Miller, Niccolai Schuster, Eimear Walsh and Olivia Burke - and Ms Burke's California-based cousin Ashley Donohue were all killed when the fourth floor balcony on Kittredge Street fell 12 metres to the ground below.
Seven other Irish students - Aoife Beary, Clodagh Cogley, Sean Fahey, Conor Flynn, Jack Halpin, Niall Murray and Hannah Waters - were all gravely injured.
Fr McBride, who has been recognised with a presidential medal for his work with immigrants, said that the following hours were full of confusion and uncertainty.
"There were three different hospitals so we went to the hospitals to try to find out who was where, who was injured and what the situation was - just trying to piece information together," he said.
"Because of social media, news was travelling so quickly but there was a certain amount of confusion as well. We were just trying to piece together accurate information and the Irish consul [Philip Grant] had been working about an hour before we got on the scene. They were compiling information as well."
A fund to help the families of the victims was opened almost immediately with two large donations from The American Ireland Fund and The Iris O'Brien Foundation proving "very helpful" as the priest and volunteers tried to offer guidance and support - while providing resources for the parents' day-to-day needs.
"We lost six young people and others were seriously injured and emotionally - it was very difficult as we were trying to do the practical things and be of support emotionally at the same time," said Fr McBride.
"People came from Ireland with the clothes on their backs because they left so quickly. They travelled to a different place geographically as well as emotionally. Everything was strange to them so the fact that we had a good band of volunteers who were there as a support to them - that was very important."
"They came as strangers but they left as friends, and those friendships are still intact."
But while he maintains that "we will always be a part of them no matter what" he will not be reaching out to them around the anniversary. "I think everybody needs their space and for the families, it is a very tough time," he said. "We don't want to intrude on their time."
"They were a wonderful group of young people and none of us will ever forget them."