Tuesday 6 December 2016

Grief, guilt still raw in the wake of Berkeley balcony collapse

No respite for the survivors and the bereaved as they now turn their focus to the legal fight, write Maeve Sheehan and Claire McCormack

Maeve Sheehan and Clare McCormack

Published 20/12/2015 | 02:30

The six students who lost their lives in the tragic accident, top left to bottom right: Lorcan Miller, Eoghan Culligan, Nick Schuster, Ashley Donohoe, Eimear Walsh and Olivia Burke
The six students who lost their lives in the tragic accident, top left to bottom right: Lorcan Miller, Eoghan Culligan, Nick Schuster, Ashley Donohoe, Eimear Walsh and Olivia Burke
The broken balcony hangs from the front of 2020 Kittredge Street, Berkeley. Photo: AP

When Fr Aidan McAleenan returned to Ireland from San Francisco for a Redemptorist retreat in Dundalk in October, word got to the families affected by the Berkeley balcony collapse that he was home. A parent of the students who died contacted the priest and asked would he like to meet. 

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It was a profoundly poignant reunion. The last time they had met was in San Francisco in June when the shocked parents came to collect the broken bodies of their children who plunged to their deaths when the balcony at their student apartment collapsed.

In the dark days immediately after the balcony tore away from the wall, flinging all 13 J1 students on to the concrete below, killing six and leaving seven others with life-changing injuries, Fr McAleenan's parish provided sanctuary for their devastated parents.

St Columba's church and the parish house in Oakland became a funeral home for four of those who died, Niccolai Schuster, Lorcan Miller, Eimear Walsh and Eoghan Culligan, their caskets placed side by side, at the request of their parents. (The bodies of Olivia Burke and her Irish-American cousin, Ashley Donohoe, were brought to Ashley's home in North California).

In the church that day, Fr McAleenan said the parents of those four dead children moved from one casket to the next, ministering and caring for one another.

Fr McAleenan was delighted to meet them again. He and the parents gathered in a reception room in Mariella, home to the Redemptorist community on Orwell Road in Dublin. They just talked, he said. There was no great ceremony. There was sorrow. There was also humour, or "craic", as Fr Aidan calls it.

"It does help get you through. It was very informal. We just had a cup of tea and talked about the experiences," said Fr McAleenan, who is now back in San Francisco.

"I think they are doing remarkably. I think they were bowled over the amazing response they got in Berkeley and here in the Bay area."

The families of those who died and the students who suffered life-changing injuries in the balcony collapse on June 16 are bonded together by a tragedy of horrific proportions, one they say should never have happened.

They have reached the end of a black year but for those bereaved there will be no respite in 2016.

Now their most pressing fight is for justice.

City of Berkeley officials have blamed dry rot caused by water intrusion into the balcony for the collapse of its wooden supporting joists and a criminal investigation is under way.

Last month, the parents of the six students killed and seven of those injured filed law suits in California against 35 defendants, including the company that owns the apartment block, BlackRock, and the builder, Segue Construction.

The law firm, Walkup, Melodia, Kelly and Schoenberger, is representing the five families of those who died: Niccolai Schuster. Eoghan Culligan, Lorcan Miller, Eimear Walsh and Olivia Burke, all from Dublin.

It also acts for the seven injured students: Clodagh Cogley, Aoife Beary, Sean Fahey, Conor Flynn, Jack Halpin, Niall Murray, and Hannah Waters, also all based in Dublin. A different US law firm, Rains Lucia Stern, is acting for the parents of Ashley Donohoe, but both firms are working closely together.

The attorneys have asked that the complaints be combined, for speed and efficiency. But the road to justice will be protracted and not pleasant for the bereaved families, and for the surviving students.

Legal sources estimate that the 13 cases could take 18 months to two years before the case comes to trial. In the coming months, the US attorneys will probably travel to Ireland to take statements from the parents of those who died, the students who survived the fall, and the medics who will testify to their injuries and the care they will need - in most cases for the rest of their lives.

They will have to give extensive depositions, in the sort of minute detail that the legal process demands. To complicate things further, there are indications that some of the 35 firms being sued by the parents and students could start suing each other. Further down the road, those who are fit to travel face the prospect of a costly trip to California to testify when the case goes to trial. The depositions may also be recorded, so that those who cannot travel can have their testimony played to the US court.

The 13 complaints filed with Alameda County Superior Court in California on November 13 provide similar accounts of what happened at drinks to celebrate Aoife Beary's 21st birthday party, two weeks after Eimear Walsh and her friends took out a lease on the apartment.

"Shortly after midnight, 13 students were standing outside apartment number 405's balcony," said one of the 12 complaints filed in Alameda court by parents of five of the six students killed and by the seven injured in the fall.

"Unbeknownst to them, moisture-induced wood rot secondary to water infiltration had destroyed the wooden cantilevered joists that supported the balcony on which they stood. None of the victims had any reason to know or suspect that a catastrophe was imminent.

"Suddenly and without warning, the balcony broke loose from the building, tumbled down and struck the third-floor balcony directly below it. The mechanics of the failure hurled the 13 students on to the cement sidewalk and asphalt pavement 40 feet below.

"The unimaginable terror that each victim experienced during the fall was eclipsed by the carnage on the ground. Six students died, and the seven survivors suffered substantial and lifelong physical and emotional injuries."

Students who witnessed the horrific events have been scarred by the trauma. According to legal submissions, they may also file suits for "emotional distress" because they "witnessed the balcony collapse and the resulting harms to their co-tenants and friends but did not suffer physical injuries".

But the clinical terms fail to convey the full horror of what they suffered. For instance, Niall Murray's complaint, filed last month, lists fractures to his spine, his left elbow and his wrist. But he also suffered de-gloving injuries - which is what happens when the skin is torn away from the tissue in a glove-like manner. He also suffered injuries to his hands, feet, torso and his head, along with emotional distress.

As for emotional distress, guilt is a common after-effect. Niall spoke about it in September, at a press conference shortly before he was discharged from hospital in San Francisco to go home to Ireland. "I feel quite guilty and awful to be alive today. I'm not sure why I made it," he said.

He is not alone. Fr Brendan McBride, who met some of the families recently, says others are struggling with guilt, too.

Fr McBride, who is originally from Portnoo, Co Donegal, is the founder of the Irish Immigration and Pastoral Centre in San Francisco that became a crisis centre in the aftermath of the tragedy.

He met several of the affected families in a Dublin hotel two weeks ago, while home on holidays.

"We met them for a private meeting at a hotel in Dublin. The families of the deceased and the survivors were there. They are very sensitive about it and I think they just want to move on," he told the Sunday Independent.

"We can move on with our lives but for those affected it is lifelong changes and it's really tough, it goes to the heart of the family and it's particularly tough at Christmas time."

For the survivors, he said, some are struggling with survivor guilt. "I suppose survivor guilt has always been there but hopefully as time moves on they will refocus on their own education and move forward.

"It's just good for them to be home. They have full lives ahead of them and hopefully they will be able to take advantage of their opportunities.

"They are a resilient group and they will get back into their colleges at the appropriate time, I think some have already started," he added.

The legal fight is only beginning for the 13 affected families. The friends who came to their aid in the US intend to continue to stand beside them. Over the coming months, Fr McBride will stay in close contact with the families as the court proceedings commence in the US.

"The people of San Francisco are always asking how they are and some of the volunteers have created lifelong friendships with them," said Fr McBride. "There is a long road ahead but we'll always be in touch with them."

Sunday Independent

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