Tuesday 27 September 2016

Berkeley tragedy: 'It is the worst day of my life'

The six Irish victims named as Eoghan Culligan, Nick Schuster, Lorcán Miller, Eimear Walsh, Olivia Burke and Ashley Donohoe

Mark O'Regan and Adam Cullen

Published 17/06/2015 | 02:30

Visitors lay flowers on a makeshift memorial near the scene of a 4th-story apartment building balcony collapse in Berkeley, California
Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates (L) hugs Philip Grant, Consul General of Ireland to the Western United States, following a wreath-laying ceremony at the scene of a 4th-story apartment building balcony collapse in Berkeley
Workmen examine the damage at the scene of the balcony collapse in Berkeley, California
Two grief-stricken Irish students, who say they knew the victims, look on as sheriff’s deputies move the body of a friend who died in the Berkeley balcony collapse.
Click to see a bigger version of the graphic
Police hold up sheets as medical staff take away the bodies of the dead students at the Library Gardens apartment complex in Berkeley.
Stunned onlookers at the scene of the tragedy
Olivia Burke
Lorcán Miller
Lorcan Miller took key positions in the school's Model United Nations St Andrew's College/PA Wire (undated photo)
Eimear Walsh
Eoghan Culligan
Ashley Donohoe
Niccolai Schuster
The remains of the damaged balcony are removed from the 4th-story apartment building in Berkeley. Photo: Reuters

THE father of one of the young students killed when a balcony collapsed in California has spoken emotionally of his loss, describing it as "the worst day of his life"

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Following the deaths of the six J1 students, with another seven injured in hospital, the families of the young victims began arriving in Berkeley last night and this morning.

The dead have been named as Eoghan Culligan, Nick Schuster, Lorcán Miller, Eimear Walsh and Olivia Burke, all 21 years old and friends from south Dublin, police confirmed.

The sixth fatality is Irish-American Ashley Donohoe (22), from California, who was with the group to celebrate the 21st birthday of Aoife Beary, who was on a summer work visa. Ashley's parents are understood to be originally from Ireland. She is understood to be a cousin of Olivia Burke.

Ashley father, George, said it was the “worst day of his life”. He described Ashley as a “fine, vibrant young woman” and said he feels deeply for the families of the other victims.

Read more: Berkeley tragedy: Irish flag is flown at half-mast on State buildings as a mark of respect

Berkeley has rallied around grief-stricken Irish students and victims families after what Mayor Tom Bates described as "a dark, dark day".

Berkeley police have said that the management of the apartment complex involved has been asked to remove a second balcony today after testing the wood yesterday.

UCD student Eimear was working at sushi restaurant Hana Zen with her friend and housemate, Olivia Burke, who was also killed in the incident. Restaurant owner Alvin Louie said Eimear has started working at the restaurant at the beginning of June as a hostess and had so impressed her managers with her enthusiasm that she had already been promoted to waitressing. She had worked her first day as a waitress on Monday.

"They were great young kids, very enthusiastic, full of energy," he told a local newspaper, "We're all devastated."

The President of Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Dr Annie Doona, said Olivia had just completed the third year of an entrepreneur and management course, and described her as "very well respected"

Olivia had gone to Canada last year, and this year decided to go to Berkeley where she was working in a restuarant and "was enjoying herself and making friends".

Read more: Berkeley tragedy: Coverage of J1 students by New York Times branded 'disgraceful' and 'crass'

"South county Dublin is quite a small community, and there was a group already in Berkeley who knew each other, and would have socialised over here," she added on RTE Radio One.

The remaining wood from the Library Gardens apartment building balcony that collapsed is shown in Berkeley, Calif. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
The remaining wood from the Library Gardens apartment building balcony that collapsed is shown in Berkeley, Calif. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Police tape blocks off a section of Kittredge Street in front the Library Gardens apartment building where balcony collapsed in Berkeley, Calif., Wednesday, June 17, 2015. The balcony broke loose from the building during a 21st birthday party early Tuesday, killing several people and seriously injuring others. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
A man makes the sign of the cross over his heart after laying a bouquet of flowers near the scene of a 4th-story apartment building balcony collapse in Berkeley, California June 16, 2015.
Workmen examine the damage at the scene of a 4th-story apartment building balcony collapse in Berkeley, California June 16, 2015.
Visitors lay flowers on a makeshift memorial near the scene of a 4th-story apartment building balcony collapse in Berkeley, California
Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates (L) hugs Philip Grant, Consul General of Ireland to the Western United States, following a wreath-laying ceremony at the scene of a 4th-story apartment building balcony collapse in Berkeley
Neil Sands, President of the Irish Network Bay Area, lays an Irish flag atop two wreaths at the scene of a 4th-story apartment building balcony collapse in Berkeley, California June 16, 2015. Photo: REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage

The former principal of St Andrews College where Lorcan Miller attended secondary school described the tragic student as one of 'those particularly special young men'.

"Lorcan was an exceptional young man, he was a student officer, he won awards nationally and internationally, he was a sportsman, an academic, he wanted to study medicine which he achieved," Arthur Godsil told Newstalk this morning.

"But, above all, he was an exceptionally pleasant young man, he had the ability to include and engage people and he had the ability to care, he had such skills in that direction."

An additional statement from the school said that "the thoughts and prayers of everyone in the St. Andrew’s community are with the family of former Andrew's boy Lorcan Miller and the other young people who died or were injured in the accident in Berkeley, California".

"Lorcan was an outstanding student who left the College in 2012 to take up an Entrance Exhibition Award to UCD to study medicine. He was a Deputy Head of School, a very fine hockey player and a strong supporter of our music and the Model United Nations.

"Lorcan was well known to all and had a very well developed social conscience which clearly motivated his concern for others. Lorcan was one of our brightest and best students who made a generous and wide-ranging contribution to St. Andrew’s. Since leaving in 2012 he would return regularly to assist students in preparing for HPAT examinations.

"The Alumni and the entire St. Andrew’s community is devastated by his loss and our thoughts are with the families who have lost loved ones or have children involved in the accident."

Tragically, the trauma has not ended as at least two of the injured are in a critical condition and some of those being treated have what are regarded as life-changing injuries.

The injured students are Hannah Waters, Clodagh Cogley, Niall Murray, Sean Fahey, Jack Halpin, Conor Flynn and Aoife Beary, all aged between 20 and 22.

Read more: Berkeley tragedy victims: 'Great, young kids... full of energy'

Minister for Diaspora Jimmy Deenihan will go to the United States "as a show of solidarity" on behalf of the Irish Government, while additional foreign affairs staff have sent to San Francisco to help the families of victims.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan said that his department are continuing to offer support to "the bereaved, the injured and the students affected" in the tragedy.

“Our Consulate in San Francisco is working with the local authorities and Irish community organisations to provide transport and accommodation to those who need it. I would like to thank the Irish community in San Francisco, local residents and the local authorities, all of whom have generously offered assistance and support to those affected by this devastating accident.

“We are also conscious that many Irish students were not physically injured, but were left deeply shocked and saddened by the loss of friends and classmates in this terrible accident. The Consulate has worked with local authorities in Berkeley to set up an incident centre in Berkeley, where grief counsellors will be on site and people will also have facilities to make phone calls home.

“I would encourage any families who have concerns about any loved ones in San Francisco and who may require these services to contact the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Consular Response Team on +353 1 418 0200."

The Dáil was been suspended until 2pm as a mark of respect for dead.

Tánaiste Joan Burton said "words wash away like water" in such circumstances.

However, she said it brings everyone together to mourn the loss of "these wonderful and beautiful people".

The fourth-storey balcony in the Library Gardens complex collapsed at 12.40am.

Police are investigating the likelihood some of the students fell while trying to save those on the balcony as it gave way.

Four of the students died at the scene, one on the way to hospital and another passed away in hospital later in the day.

Berkeley police spokeswoman Jennifer Coats described the survivors' injuries as "very serious and potentially life-threatening".

The apartment, number 405, was rented out by Eimear, Olivia and Aoife but many of those attending the gathering would have lived close by.

The victims are primarily made up of two groups of friends from the Terenure, Rathfarnham and Foxrock areas. Some are past-pupils of the well-known St Mary's Schools in Rathmines and Loreto in Foxrock.

Read more: Officials begin three probes into what caused collapse

Philip Grant, the Irish consul in San Francisco, explained to the US media last night that Ireland was a small country where "very few of us have been left untouched by this tragedy".

He said the country was "frozen in shock and disbelief" and "overwhelmed by the outpouring of support that we have received from all the communities here".

"There are very many questions we would like to know the answers to, but right at the moment what we are concentrating on finding out how everybody is, to make sure that all those who needs to know how their loved ones are, are informed," Mr Grant said.

The father of a young student who survived the 40ft fall told the Irish Independent that his daughter "just fell from the sky".

Niall Cogley said it was a "miracle" his daughter, Clodagh, was alive following the balcony collapse.

Read more: Live: Six Irish students on J1 visas in US killed in balcony collapse

She is being treated in hospital for "a number of broken bones".

"I was speaking to her earlier," he said. "She seemed upbeat enough given what has happened to her. But I don't know how much of that is down to the medication she is on, or her putting a brave face on things for her parents."

Mr Cogley said the 21-year-old psychology student had been away for only a few weeks having finished her exams in Trinity.

"From what I understand there was a 21st, and there was a bunch of them on a balcony, either getting some air, or dancing, or whatever you do at a 21st. Then it just fell from the sky and they all ended up on the street, some fatally injured.

Read more: Bohemian spirit and cheap rents draw students to Berkeley

"It was a very small community of over there in Berkeley - and they were obviously sticking together.

"That is such a tragedy - and there are so many bereaved families," said Mr Cogley, who is flying to the US today. "We don't know the full extent of her injuries at the moment, we are just thankful she is alive."

Anything from 30 to 50 people were at the house party in the apartment when the tragedy struck at 12.40am.

Police have confirmed a call was received about a noise disturbance at the apartment complex just 40 minutes before the tragedy - but decided not to respond as they also received reports of a shooting in a separate area of the city at the same time.

They said officers didn't consider one call a major issue and even if they had visited the complex they would not have entered the apartment but would merely have politely requested the group to lower the volume.

Read more: Berkeley victim was life-long GAA fan

Respect

The tricolour is to be flown at half mast on Government Buildings today as a mark of respect to the victims.

Last night, wreaths were laid at the site on behalf of the Irish community in the area and the Government.

Many of the parents began the heartbreaking journey to the San Francisco as soon as they heard the news yesterday morning, with the remainder expected to travel on from Dublin this afternoon.

Read more: Nation grieves as summer of adventure ends in awful tragedy

There are currently around 700 Irish students in the Bay area of San Francisco. Mr Grant said there were very few who wouldn't know someone at the tragic party.

One witness described the impact of the balcony collapse as being "like a bomb going off".

Dan Sullivan (21), a UCD student who has been in the US for just over two weeks, is living on the first floor of the apartment complex where the tragedy occurred.

"We just heard a bang in the middle of night and shouting," he said.

Read more: 8,000 Irish students travel to America on J1 visas every year

Mark Neville, another student from Ireland who lives in the building, said he was outside when he heard commotion.

"I saw rubble on the street, and a bunch of students crying," he said.

A number of the deceased students are understood to be have been attending UCD.

Tributes have flowed in for the students, with UCD President Andrew Deeks extending his condolences to the families..

Irish Independent

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