Thursday 27 October 2016

How a summer of California dreams became a nightmare

Berkeley was meant to be the J1 jackpot for Irish students seeking adventure and fun

Published 20/06/2015 | 02:30

A young man grieves at a vigil in Berkeley
A young man grieves at a vigil in Berkeley

Due to high demand and numbers travelling, California is "full" and no further applications will be taken for this region, the J1 website tersely states.

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As a coming-of-age moment, there is no equal to the J1 summer - as is witnessed by the annual queues that form patiently outside the American Embassy in Dublin's Ballsbridge in all weather.

The Stateside work visa programme is and has been for decades now, what the Grand Tour of Europe once was to wealthy young gentlemen in a bygone age.

A rite of passage, a chance to break away from parental constraints and to see the world through the gloriously bright eyes of eternally optimistic youth.

Even if you go on to travel the world twice over, nowhere will ever be as memorable or as exciting as that first tantalising window of freedom abroad.

And where better to experience this than a slice of California dreaming?

Special mention on the USIT website goes to the city of Berkeley, home to the university of the same name as being "the US's most famous alternative culture hotspot, with everything from legendary punk clubs to anarchist libraries".

With a small city feel, Berkeley offers the San Francisco experience - but most importantly access to the San Francisco jobs pot.

It ticks all the boxes for students, confirmed one Irish woman living in the Bay Area for many years.

"It's very leafy and pretty with beautiful family homes but the people aren't snobby there," she explained.

Read More: Minister Deenihan 'inspired' by injured Berkeley student Conor Flynn's 'determination'

Beautiful, bohemian - but most importantly very accustomed, and therefore welcoming, to students. A summer in Berkeley is the J1 jackpot.

The first port of call for many of the Irish students is the Irish Pastoral Centre Facebook page, where accommodation tips are given and offers of a room shared.

UCD student Aoife Beary (21), from Blackrock and who is the daughter of a primary school teacher, was no doubt ecstatic when she managed to get an apartment on the fourth floor with a balcony at Library Gardens, Kittredge Street in Berkeley.

Student accommodation during the academic year, in the summer months it is used mainly by visitors. Kittredge Street was nothing fancy but it was in an area of the city described as 'functional', with the city library nearby.

The University of California, Berkeley, known locally as 'Cal', is close by and is a popular spot where students can relax and sunbathe in a green area.

Aoife moved in with friend Eimear Walsh (21), a third- year medical student at UCD, and Olivia Burke (21), an entrepreneurship and management student at Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology.

All three girls had been close friends since their days together at Loreto College, Foxrock.

Eimear and Olivia managed to snap up jobs quickly, working as hostesses at the Hana Zen sushi bar and Japanese restaurant overlooking Pier 39 - the popular San Francisco tourist spot, where sea lions bask nearby, and with views out to sea over Alcatraz.

They would not have been entitled to the minimum wage but tips would have been plentiful and Pier 39 would have been a lively and stimulating place to work and a feast for the senses to the young visitors hanging out in their spare time.

A colourful variety of street performers there include the world famous San Francisco Bush Man - who takes unsuspecting visitors by surprise as he leaps out at them from the bushes.

Their first few weeks in San Francisco would have been a heady experience for the girls. And they were not alone.

Eimear Walsh was in touch with her fellow UCD med student Lorcan Miller (21), who had been a pupil previously at St Andrew's College in Booterstown.

He is remembered by the school as an 'outstanding student' with a very well developed social conscience.

The south Dublin circle in San Francisco was a tight and friendly one, making socialising effortless.

Eoghan Culligan (21) from Rathfarnham was a 'bundle of fun' and a talented footballer, who was due to start his final year of studies in Supply Chain Management and Logistics at Dublin Institute of Technology.

Nick Schuster (21) from Terenure was a History and Politics student at UCD and was a former pupil at St Mary's College, Rathmines.

He was "lively and always the life and soul of the party" recalled a friend.

The group also encompassed Hannah Waters (21) from Castleknock, who had just finished the second year of a business studies course in DCU and was a former student of Loreto College, St Stephen's Green; Clodagh Cogley (21), a third-year Psychology student at Trinity and a former pupil of Alexandra College; and Jack Halpin (21), a UCD commerce graduate from Rathmines; and fellow Rathmines native Sean Fahey (21).

Conor Flynn (22), a Dublin Institute of Technology student from Mount Merrion - who played football with Nick Schuster with Bushy Park Rangers; and NUI Galway student Niall Murphy (21) were also part of the circle.

On Tuesday last, the group had joined together, with others, for a special celebration in Aoife's apartment. It was her 21st birthday.

It was a casual and typical student affair. A colourful banner was carefully pinned to the sitting room wall.

Someone had brought a blue, heart-shaped balloon.

Olivia Burke had invited her cousin Ashley Donohoe (22), who was brought up in Santa Rosa and was a third-year biology student at Sonoma State University.

There were about 50 or 60 gathered in the small apartment and the neighbours became a little annoyed because of the noise.

Again, there was nothing unusual about this in a area popular with students and the police were in no hurry to respond.

But shortly before 1am, disaster struck.

There was a loud cracking sound as the rotten wooden supports of the balcony broke away from the wall, falling onto the balcony in the floor below - and sending students plunging 40 feet below onto the street.

The accounts are not entirely clear at this stage - it is not certain whether all 13 students were on the balcony at the time the structure failed or whether some had rushed out there in a bid to save their friends.

Eimear Walsh, Olivia Burke, Ashley Donohoe, Eoghan Culligan, Lorcan Miller and Nick Schuster were killed in the accident, with four dying at the scene and two in hospital.

Clodagh Cogley, Jack Halpin, Hannah Waters and Aoife Beary were injured.

Jack managed to grab Clodagh to help break her fall. He is now being treated for back injuries and two broken legs.

Clodagh suffered extensive injuries to her legs and spine.

Hannah and Aoife are fighting for their lives in hospital, with Hannah described as being one of the most seriously injured and Aoife's condition described as 'critical'.

Jason Biswas, a Berkeley High School student who lives nearby, told the 'LA Times' that he and his parents thought it was an earthquake until they looked out the window.

"I looked down and it was just death. I didn't know what was going on," he said.

"There were about 12 bodies on the ground and one girl was on the kerb," he continued.

"There was lots of blood and debris. Then about 10 ambulances came."

Red drinking cups, cans and crumbled plaster littered the street below.

Almost immediately, the investigation as to how this could have happened began.

But a formal analysis of the wooden supports of the balcony was not even required when even immediate photographs showed that they were riddled with dry rot. In fact, they crumbled in the hands of investigating officers, confirmed Darrick Hom, president of the Structural Engineers Association of Northern California, at a mere touch.

"That wood was decayed to the point where they could touch it with their hands and it was coming off in chunks in their hands," he said.

In Earthquake-prone California - with Berkeley itself shaken by a magnitude six quake last August - such a structural fault seemed beyond the realms of possibility. But the reports on how it happened are now in the hands of the authorities in California.

And, again even before an informal investigation, it seems clear that the 'New York Times' article that appeared to somehow blame the students for playing a part in their own deaths by crowding the balcony was way off the mark.

Even if the 13 students had been out there at the same time, the structure should have held.

"If you had 14 people, and they were all - I don't know - football players, and they were jumping up and down, you would get a fair amount of deflection, depending on how well the railing was tied back," said Californian structural engineer Gene St Onge.

"But if the (wooden supports) were designed even under minimal standards, it should still have held."

All that remains now is for the families, friends and the nation at large to mourn the immense loss of six young lives and, of course, retain hope for the injured still battling.

Irish Independent

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