Saturday 22 October 2016

Mass held for balcony fall victims

Published 18/06/2015 | 08:51

A man holds his head during a memorial service for the six students at the Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland, California (AP)
A man holds his head during a memorial service for the six students at the Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland, California (AP)
Mourners lay candles during a vigil for six Irish students in California (AP)

Hundreds of people have attended a Mass for victims of a deadly California balcony collapse, with the priest calling on people to offer support for the families of the six young people killed and seven injured.

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Father Aidan McAleenan told the congregation at Oakland's Cathedral in Berkeley that family members right now are focused on their loved ones rather than on the cause of the tragedy.

"We may well wonder and want to lash out and talk about the balcony and who built it," said Mr McAleenan, who rushed to hospitals after hearing of the disaster. "But at the end of the day what (families) want the most is to see their loved ones. They want to touch them, they want to hold them and they want to kiss them."

Some families arrived from Ireland and were met by representatives from the Irish Consulate. None of them apparently attended the Mass, which drew some 300 people from around the San Francisco Bay Area.

A candlelight vigil for the victims was also held.

Earlier, Berkeley mayor Tom Bates said the balcony collapse appears to have been caused by rotted wooden beams. He said investigators believe the wood was not caulked and sealed properly at the time of construction and was damaged by moisture as a result.

The crowded fifth-floor balcony broke off an apartment building during a 21st birthday party early on Tuesday held by visiting Irish college students, dumping 13 people 50 feet on to the pavement.

"More than likely it was caused by rain and caused by water damage that was done to the support beams," Mr Bates said. He said it was "obviously a bad idea" for 13 people to crowd on to such a small balcony - it was about 40 square feet - but added that he is not blaming the victims.

Later in the day, however, the mayor said the water-damage theory was speculation on his part and not an official conclusion, and that the investigation is still under way.

Building inspectors also determined another balcony at the Library Gardens apartment complex was "structurally unsafe and presented a collapse hazard". They ordered it to be demolished.

Two other balconies were red-tagged, or declared off-limits, at the apartments, which were completed in 2007 and are popular among visiting students and those at the nearby University of California.

Segue Construction, the Library Gardens general contractor, was involved in two San Francisco Bay Area lawsuits in recent years involving allegations of dry rot and substandard balconies at condo and apartment projects in Millbrae and San Jose. Among other things, Segue was accused of improperly waterproofing balconies.

Both cases were settled in 2013 with Segue, developers and other parties agreeing to pay millions of dollars.

Segue spokesman Sam Singer said such litigation is common on large projects and "has no bearing on the tragedy" in Berkeley.

"They are completely different projects. They are completely different types of balconies," he said. Singer said of the balcony collapse: "Segue Construction has never had an incident like this in its history."

Cassandra Bujarski, a spokeswoman for the apartments' property management firm, Greystar, had no comment.

Across the Atlantic, flags flew at half-mast around Ireland and the country's parliament suspended normal business as the nation mourned the dead: Ashley Donohoe, 22, of Rohnert Park, California, and Olivia Burke, Eoghan Culligan, Niccolai Schuster, Lorcan Miller and Eimear Walsh, all 21-year-olds from Ireland.

"They were in the prime of their lives," said Bernadette Prendiville, principal of the high school from which Burke and Walsh graduated. "They had a successful time in school, went about their work quietly and had everything going for them, everything ahead of them."

The Irish students were working and travelling in the US over the summer, a rite of passage enjoyed by thousands of their countrymen.

"For many of my countrymen, this is a favourite experience, and to have this happen at the start of the season has left us frozen in shock," said Philip Grant, Ireland's San Francisco-based consul general.

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