Saturday 22 October 2016

Survivors reveal a year of painful struggle

Emotional testimony shows the devastating impact on those who lived, writes Nicola Anderson

Published 13/08/2016 | 02:30

Survivor Aoife Beary (right) and her mother Angela at the hearing this week in California on a new bill to make construction safer Picture: AP
Survivor Aoife Beary (right) and her mother Angela at the hearing this week in California on a new bill to make construction safer Picture: AP

It was not the long catalogue of her own critical injuries that made Aoife Beary break down and weep, it was the memory of the friends she had held dear since they all started school together at the age of four and how she never knew it would end like this.

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"Take your time . . . and . . . it's ok . . .we're here to listen," she was gently told as she struggled to compose herself at the California State Senate, in order to complete her heartbreaking statement, a testimony to all she had lost - but also to her strength and survival. There "wasn't a dry eye in the house", said Senator Jerry Hill afterwards.

On June 16 last, a granite plaque reading "They lived and laughed and loved and left," was laid in the grounds of the US embassy in Dublin commemorating the loss of five Irish students - Olivia Burke, Eoghan Culligan, Nick Schuster, Lorcan Miller and Eimear Walsh, all aged 21 - who died in the Berkeley balcony collapse the summer before, alongside Ashley Donohoe (22), Olivia Burke's Irish-American cousin.

Amid their loss, seven survivors were left to embark on a long, slow process of recovery and an attempt to rebuild their lives anew amid ongoing physical and mental pain, survivors' guilt, grief and nightmarish flashbacks.

Clodagh Cogley (21), Jack Halpin (21), Hannah Waters (21), Aoife Beary (21), Niall Murray (21), Sean Fahey (21) and Conor Flynn (22) were hospitalised with severe injuries following the catastrophic incident. So bad were the scenes of carnage and devastation that several police officers vomited on witnessing the immediate aftermath. Just a short time before, the students had been in high spirits for Aoife Beary's 21st birthday.

Niall Murray, who spoke publicly when he arrived back in Ireland last year, said he would "always remember that night", recalling the group of friends in the apartment joking and laughing, as Aoife got her 21 kisses, in line with a long-standing, larky tradition. Moments later, he heard a "big rumble" as the balcony gave way.

The NUI Galway student said he would give anything to be able to go back and warn his friends not to go out on the balcony at the Library Gardens apartments on Kittredge Street.

Last summer, Aoife had not been expected to make it through. But some 14 months later, she was back in California giving a strikingly powerful testimony to the Senate that won their support for legislative change to ensure greater oversight of the construction industry.

Critically injured in the fall, she showed bravery beyond comprehension as she outlined how devastating the effects of that night had been, as she began: "I am a survivor of the Berkeley balcony collapse that happened at my 21st birthday party.

"My friends and I were so looking forward to our summer in Berkeley. We had already travelled a lot and spent our summers in Vancouver, Thailand and Vietnam since we started college. I could never have imagined how it would have ended," she said, breaking down in uncontrollable grief.

"I miss my friends so much," she went on again, explaining how they had known each other since starting school together at the age of four.

"We had grown up together and now my birthday will always be their anniversary," she said, as she wept again.

She outlined her own injuries: a traumatic brain injury, open heart surgery, broken arms, hands, pelvis and jaw - along with the loss of some teeth - lacerations to the liver, kidney and spleen, a collapsed lung and broken ribs.

Read More: Survivors face quiz from building companies

"None of this needed to happen," she said. "Some of my injuries will be with me for the rest of my life. I have lost a lot of my independence.

"My career goals have been stopped. I couldn't finish my final year and my college degree as I have been unable to return to college. My life has been changed forever.

"I cannot believe that you are even debating this bill. People died. You should make sure that balconies are scrutinised in this state to prevent this happening again. Thank you for listening to me."

Her mother Angela was equally powerful in her words to the Senate, as she vividly recalled the girls "sitting around my kitchen table, laptops and phones going as they made their bookings for Library Gardens."

The picture she painted was a familiar one to many families as she described how she had been in the kitchen, pottering around and listening to the buzz.

Some friends had used the accommodation in Berkeley before and it "seemed safe".

"How wrong we were," said Angela. They had hugged and kissed their children goodbye at Dublin airport in late May, "gave them the usual last-minute advice and warnings and we sent them on their way, full of laughter, smiles and excitement.

"Many of them never came home."

For the 13 families affected, life will never be the same again, she said.

Most haunting of all, perhaps, was her revelation that while Aoife has made significant progress, instead of spreading her own wings, her "bright, intelligent, independent 22-year-old daughter" remains under hers, through the negligence of others.

The other six survivors face their own private struggles as they cope with pain, distress and altered lives.

In legal papers lodged with the US courts, Clodagh Cogley detailed the extent of her injuries, which include a "paralysing spinal cord injury, two collapsed lungs, fractured ribs, orthopaedic injuries to her extremities, emotional distress and other injuries not currently diagnosed".

In a Facebook post, she has said that it is unlikely she will walk again.

But she has returned to university, her profile picture showing her in a crown of flowers.

Irish Independent

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