Tuesday 23 May 2017

US balcony victims 'had twins bond'

Amanda Donohoe looks at her sister's casket during a service for Olivia Burke and Ashley Donohoe at St Joseph Catholic Church in California (AP)
Amanda Donohoe looks at her sister's casket during a service for Olivia Burke and Ashley Donohoe at St Joseph Catholic Church in California (AP)
Relatives pray during funeral services for Ashley Donohoe, 22, and Olivia Burke, 21 (AP)

Two cousins who were among the victims killed when a balcony collapsed in Berkeley, California, have been remembered as kind, fun-loving young women who shared a bond of twins even though they grew up an ocean apart - one in California and the other in Ireland.

Ashley Donohoe, of Rhonert Park, California, and her cousin Olivia Burke of Ireland were mourned at a Catholic mass.

A bagpipe player led a brief procession of family and friends carrying the coffins into St Joseph Catholic Church in Cotati, where many present at the packed churched wiped away tears.

Wreaths of white flowers and emerald green ribbons decorated the church.

The Rev Daniel Whelton said that growing up, the girls would dress alike to try to fool their parents into thinking they were twins.

When Ms Burke turned 18, Ms Donohoe travelled to Ireland and surprised her. Ms Burke often travelled to California to spend time with her cousin, said Mr Whelton, who led the mass at the same church where Ms Donohoe was baptised.

"Growing up, they would dress alike and they would try to fool their parents into thinking they were twins," Mr Whelton said with those in attendance breaking into laughter.

Mr Whelton said Ms Donohoe's mother told him the two were embracing when they died.

"In life they were together and in death they are together," Mr Whelton said.

At a less sombre celebration of the women's lives at Sonoma State University, where Ms Donohoe was studying biology, two giant screens projected photographs of the cousins hugging, dressing up and making funny faces.

Ms Donohoe's sister, Amanda Donohoe, said her sister travelled at least 22 times to Ireland to spend time with her cousin.

"Although their lives were really short and ended in a tragic way, they still led full lives with the short time they did have," Amanda Donohoe said.

"None of us will ever forget them," she added.

The two cousins were among the six people killed on Tuesday when the balcony snapped off the fifth floor of a Berkeley apartment building during a birthday party, tossing 13 people to the street 50 feet below. Seven people are being treated in hospitals.

The other four dead victims were mourned at a Friday night vigil in Oakland attended by family members and dozens of their fellow Irish students, including some who saw them in their final moments.

Hearses carried the four metal coffins into St Columba Catholic Church, where about 15 of the victims' immediate family members huddled together in the rectory for about an hour before entering the church for the private viewing.

A bus and a van bearing about 50 other Irish students living in the San Francisco Bay area for the summer, as the four victims were, came to the church to honour the dead. The group included students who had been at the party where the balcony collapsed.

The church's sanctuary was decorated with cloths in the colours of the Irish flag and had screens in each corner of the room with projected images of the six students.

Several city officials from Berkeley visited to pay respects to the families. They included the city's mayor, police chief and fire chief, along with first responders who aided the victims the night of the accident.

Jimmy Deenihan, Ireland's minister for the diaspora, said the tragedy had garnered great attention in Ireland, and he was touched by how much support for the victims and their families he has found in the US.

"You can't really appreciate the trauma they are going through; only they can," Mr Deenihan said.

Those being honoured were Eoghan Culligan, Niccolai Schuster, Lorcan Miller and Eimear Walsh, all 21-year-olds from Ireland.

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