Saturday 10 December 2016

The saddest journey as loved ones come home

Published 21/06/2015 | 02:30

Student deaths in Berkeley
Student deaths in Berkeley
EARS AND DESOLATION: Friends and fellow students grieve following an open casket vigil in Oakland, California on Friday for four of the Irish students
A HAUNTING LAMENT: The cortege halts as a lone piper plays ‘She Moved Through The Fair’ as the coffins of Ashley Donohoe and Olivia Burke, cousins and best friends, were brought yesterday into the Church of St Joseph’s in Cotati, Sonoma County, California

Lone piper plays 'She Moved Through the Fair' as cousins Ashley and Olivia are brought into the grief-stricken church

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And so we bring them home.

Five flowers taken before full bloom arrive back on native soil today as a sixth, also our blood kin, was yesterday mourned under a California sun.

It was the saddest journey - 5,000 miles of heartache for those left behind by the tragedy; united in anguish, joined in grief.

In the days to come, the bitter tears and desolation of a final farewell of those taken too soon.

And for those blessed with faith, the solace of shared sorrow, a communion in sadness as they are interred with the benediction of their church.

Ashley Donohoe and Olivia Burke, cousins and best friends came together for one final time yesterday in the Church of St Joseph's in the town of Cotati, Sonoma County in California

A week ago they were students enjoying their vacation and working enough to earn money to fund the summer months before Olivia would return to Dublin and Ashley would resume her studies at college in Sonoma.

They had the world at their feet.

Young, talented, full of life, and enjoying their time together there was not a cloud on their horizon.

And then Tuesday happened. The cousins were taken from this life in that terrible accident at the Liberty Gardens apartment complex in Berkeley.

Yesterday a lone piper playing the haunting lament She Moved Through The Fair led the coffins and the grieving families into the packed church for a Celebration Of Life service.

Appropriately an Irishman conducted their funeral service.

Monsignor Dan Whelton from Cork city, the Vicar General of Santa Rosa Parish welcomed the grieving families, George and Jackie Donohoe and Ashley's sister Amanda and Paul and Paula Burke and their son Gavin.

Minister for the Diaspora Jimmy Deenihan and Anne Anderson, the Irish Ambassador to Washington, represented the Government.

Monsignor Whelton was joined in concelebrating the Mass by a number of priests including Fr Brendan McBride of the Irish Immigration Pastoral Centre, Fr Aidan McAleenan from Oakland.

Both priests have been counselling and supporting the injured and their families throughout this terrible week.

Fr John McNerney, the Chaplain of UCD was also on the altar as representative not only of his own college but all the universities and colleges at which the dead and injured had been studying.

Monsignor Whelton spoke of the intense relationship and friendship enjoyed by Ashley and Olivia. He quoted friends of Ashley as saying she was a "ray of sunshine".

He told how Ashley worked two jobs to support herself and she was a talented soccer player who also coached young people in the game.

He said Olivia's brother Gavin told him that his sister was a "kind, caring person, fun-loving with a great smile".

He said she was person who thought more about the other person than herself, and that she was diligent, but enjoyed the craic.

Monsignor Whelton said that Olivia and Ashley were not twins but acted as such with each other.

"They were very close to each other and their families were very close too," he said.

When they were very much younger they used to dress alike and try to fool their friends that they were twins.

He indicated the depth of their friendship when he said that on Olivia's 18th birthday Ashley showed up at the door of the Burke family home unannounced, having travelled all the way from California to surprise her beloved cousin in celebrating that landmark coming of age.

Monsignor Whelton said: "Did death come too early? Absolutely, and out of the natural order and nature of things. But it has happened," he said.

He said that Ashley's mother Jackie said after she received the tragic news about the death of the two young women she went to Berkeley. When she got to see the bodies the two girls were holding each other. "They were together in life and they were together in death too," she had told the priest.

Their final separation came after the service when Olivia's body was returned to Berkeley for repatriation today to her native Dublin.

On Friday, just a few miles away from the scene of the disaster, a cortege of four funeral cars bearing the remains of Eimear Walsh, Lorcan Miller, Eoghan Culligan and Niccolai Schuster arrived at St Columba's church at 6041 San Pablo in Oakland.

A strange and terrible week indeed, one which brought what Jimmy Deenihan, Minister for the Diaspora, described as probably the worst ever tragedy to happen Irish people abroad.

That sense of disbelief was deepened by other events taking place in Oakland on Friday. Earlier that day in another part of the city, hundreds of thousands of Golden Warriors fans celebrated like crazy, exulting in the achievement of their team winning the NBA title for the first time in 40 years.

Joy unconfined in one area, solemn uncomprehending desolation in another.

The dignified obsequies in Oakland for the four Irish students was effectively what we call in Ireland a 'removal', a chance for those who loved and cared for the dead, and for those who had become part of the aftermath of tragedy, to pay their respects.

The church, named after an Irish saint, Columba, has an altar in the centre.

On the altar, a large green baize was placed at one side and an orange altar covering at the other. The white marble of the altar itself completed the Irish colours.

At each corner of the altar was placed a coffin at a slight angle. Looking from the back, Lorcan Miller's coffin was on the back left side; Eimear Walsh's on the back right, Nick Schuster's on the top left and Eoghan Culligan's on top right.

The coffins were closed for the only photographs permitted inside the church prior to the entry of the families, but after that, they were open.

Private time with the deceased was given to the families, and at around 4.30pm, their friends and fellow J-1 students started to arrive on the shuttle-bus organised by the city and Irish Consul General's department from Berkeley.

Around 300, most of them J-1 students with connections of friendship, college and school ties to the victims, came at intervals until the closing down of the event at around 9.45pm.

Fr Aidan McAleenan, pastor of St Columba's, has tended to the afflicted, helping with prayers, counselling and support all through the week.

The original plan was for an all-night vigil before the four young adults were to be taken home on an Aer Lingus flight, which was scheduled to arrive early this morning.

However, such was the level of stress and strain, particularly on the families, that a decision was taken to end the vigil, because a long journey home lay ahead, with days more of fraught emotions to come with the funerals early in the week.

In the meantime, they sat alongside the coffins of their loved ones as dignitaries from Ireland, Berkeley civic authorities and the Police and Fire Departments, attended the church vigil along with the students and general public.

The Irish State was represented by Minister for the Diaspora Jimmy Deenihan and Irish Ambassador to Washington, Anne Anderson.

Mayor Tom Bates of Berkeley, his wife and State Senator Lonnie Hancock were accompanied by Chief of Police Michael Meehan and Fire Chief Gil Dong.

First responders who arrived at the scene of the carnage at 2020 Kittredge Street in Berkeley that awful night also arrived to offer their condolences.

They had seen at first-hand the appalling consequences of the failure of the balcony's structure.

In an instant, 13 young adults, aged between 20-22, were plummeting down four storeys to impact on the unyielding concrete below apartment 405 in the Liberty Gardens complex on Kittredge Street, Berkeley.

Chief Meehan and Fire Chief Gil Dong's troops responded within minutes to the frantic 911 calls for help and assistance.

The scene was horrific, the injuries extensive and very serious.

"Our officers have never seen anything like this in their careers. Hopefully, they never will again.

"It was horrific. Deeply painful. Very, very stressful, but they did their jobs.

"Their job was to make people as safe as they could, as quickly as they could, but I can tell you that even days later, they're deeply affected by it," said Chief Meehan.

Chief Meehan's people have received counselling where necessary.

"We've had counsellors come in and talk to them. They realise that sometimes it takes days to realise just how affected they are by it, but we've certainly seen that in our police officers," he said.

Sunday Independent

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