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Sunday 4 December 2016

Watch: 'I miss them so much' - Berkeley victim Aoife Beary describes losing her life-long friends

'I can't believe you are even debating this,' survivor tells committee

Allison Bray and Claire Murphy

Published 11/08/2016 | 02:30

Angela, left and Aoife Beary, center, listen with Vice Consul Kevin Byrne of the Irish Consulate General, right, as state lawmakers in the Assembly Appropriations Committee discuss SB465 in Sacramento, Calif. (AP Photo/Darcy Costello)
Angela, left and Aoife Beary, center, listen with Vice Consul Kevin Byrne of the Irish Consulate General, right, as state lawmakers in the Assembly Appropriations Committee discuss SB465 in Sacramento, Calif. (AP Photo/Darcy Costello)
A still picture of Aoife Beary addressing legislators in California's State Assembly
Aoife Beary and mother Angela at the California Senate Appropriations Committee. Photo: Mike Beary
Hannah Waters
Niall Murray was injured in the fall
Conor Flynn
Jack Halpin
Sean Fahey
Clodagh Cogley
Ashley Donohoe’s mother Jackie gives her testimony Photo: Mike Beary

Berkeley balcony survivor Aoife Beary testified in public for the first time at a California State Senate hearing to force building contractors to be more transparent.

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Aoife (22) from Blackrock, Co Dublin, survived the horrific accident that saw six of her friends killed when a balcony collapsed at the Library Gardens Apartments in Berkeley, California. A further seven students were left with life-changing injuries after the accident, during Aoife's birthday party celebrations on June 16, 2015.

The balcony was constructed by a firm that had a history of legal claims against it, which it had not disclosed to the state license board.

In heartbreaking testimony, Aoife told the California Assembly Appropriations Committee that the accident changed her life forever.

The Beary family meet Jack Boyd, the cardiac surgeon who performed Aoife’s open heart surgery Photo: Mike Beary
The Beary family meet Jack Boyd, the cardiac surgeon who performed Aoife’s open heart surgery Photo: Mike Beary

"Some of my injuries will be with me for the rest of my life," she said. "I cannot believe why you're even debating this bill - people's lives. You should ensure all balconies are scrutinised in this state to prevent this from happening again."

If the bill is passed, legislators will be forced to research ways to protect the public against negligent contractors with previous lawsuits against them.

Aoife underwent open heart surgery, suffered multiple broken bones, organ lacerations and lost some of her teeth. She told the committee that she is less independent and may never be able to obtain the pharmacology degree she was studying for before the accident.

Students Eimear Walsh, Olivia Burke, Niccolai Schuster, Lorcán Miller, Eoghan Culligan (21) and Ashley Donohoe (22) died in the balcony collapse.

Read more: 'Our sense of belonging is what supports us' - Berkeley victims remembered by Irish community in poignant San Francisco service

Aoife broke down during the hearing in Sacramento, California, yesterday as she described losing the friends she had known since she was four years old at a party to celebrate her 21st birthday: "We have grown up together. And now my birthday will always be their anniversary," she said.

She also described a litany of injuries she sustained when the balcony collapsed due to dry rot as the young people gathered outside.

She not only suffered a traumatic brain injury, she was also forced to undergo open heart surgery and treatment for a collapsed lung and broken ribs.

The collapsed balcony after the accident Photo: Mike Beary
The collapsed balcony after the accident Photo: Mike Beary

Other injuries included broken arms, hands, pelvis and jaw as well as lacerations to her liver, kidneys and spleen.

Ashely Donohoe's mother Jackie spoke about how the legislation was vital to prevent an accident like this from happening again.

After the accident, families of the victims learned that the balcony had been built by a firm that paid out $26.5m in construction defect settlements that were never reported to the state license board.

Disclosure of the settlements isn't required under current law - and that's got to change, Ms Donohoe said.

"If someone had done the right thing and not accepted a secret settlement, these kids could be alive today," she said.

Jackie said the young people - many of them on J1 Visas - who were on the balcony that night were failed by a system that helped companies to hide their negligence.

Read more: Berkeley: One Year On - 'It's the worst thing I've dealt with in 30 years on the job' - emergency responder remembers tragic balcony collapse

"The main reason they don't want these reforms to go through is so they can do secret settlements and hide their negligent construction when they get caught," she told the hearing.

Ms Donohoe said she taught her daughter Ashley to never drink and drive, to slow down on the road and to text her when she left the house. But never in a million years did she caution her daughter about walking out onto a balcony.

"How many of you ever thought that if you walk out onto a balcony that those steps could be your last?" Ms Donohoe said. "This could have been prevented. We never want to see another family go through the same pain and suffering."

Ms Donohoe's niece Olivia Burke (21) was also killed in the balcony collapse.

In April, the state board found that "poor workmanship" in the waterproofing of the balcony resulted in water damage that caused it to rot and eventually fall.

The legislation would require the Contractors State License Board and the Building Standards Commission to research how to protect the public from negligent contractors and boost transparency in the construction industry and report back to the Legislature by 2018 with recommendations.

Read more: 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

Aoife's mother Angela Beary also spoke at the Commission.

In an emotional address on behalf of the families of the six young Irish students who died in the disaster last summer, Angela Beary said that their lives had been "irrevocably changed".

"I know that I speak now on behalf of all the 13 families, when I say that as a result of the balcony collapse, all of our lives have been irrevocably changed and life will never be the same for us again."

The Assembly Appropriations Committee will consider the bill today ahead of a deadline tomorrow. After that, it heads to the Assembly floor.

Aoife's father Mike posted a series of photos online of their trip to California, including a visit to Highland Hospital in Berkeley and the Stanford Health Centre where she was treated after the accident. Aoife and her family also left a bunch of flowers in memory of her friends at the site of the balcony collapse.

Irish Independent

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