Tuesday 24 April 2018

An immense trauma for the young whose lives have been changed forever

Students hold candles as they gather at the Martin Luther King Jr Civic Center Park to mourn the victims of the Berkeley balcony tragedy
Students hold candles as they gather at the Martin Luther King Jr Civic Center Park to mourn the victims of the Berkeley balcony tragedy
Liam Kelly

Liam Kelly

The physical suffering of the injured, the loss of friends, the emotional and mental trauma has been immense for the young adults whose lives changed forever in the early hours of Tuesday.

They came here to the Bay area of San Francisco to work hard, play hard and revel in the freedom and craic that is virtually a cast-iron guarantee which comes with the receipt of a J1 visa.

Hundreds of young students from all over Ireland aged between 17-22 arrived over the last month and set to the business of finding a job, finding a place to stay, watching the budget, and getting on with being young, carefree and far away from parental guidance.

That's what it's about. That's the deal.

Read more: 'Ireland will forever be grateful' - Berkeley police department receives 'thank you' letters from Irish public

Now, as the days wear on through this awful week, an unimaginable tragedy that left six dead, seven badly injured and a whole student community emotionally devastated has changed everything.

They walk around in groups, they visit the shrine of flowers, tributes, messages and mementoes that keeps growing alongside the ill-fated Liberty Gardens apartments in uptown Berkeley.

Read more: Give your sons and daughters an extra hug when you can

Hundreds of them gathered in the Civic Peace Park near to the disaster site for a candlelight memorial.

This was their tribute, arranged by the students. They were led in prayer by a local cleric, but when the prayers for the dead and injured ended, the silence continued.

These were young men and women robbed of the carefree holiday J-1 atmosphere that we would all see as almost their right, their privilege, one to enjoy as a rite of passage for the newbies, but a precious time to be enjoyed by all of them.

Many have suffered serious emotional backlash and are being helped by the tremendous all-round effort of the Irish Consulate staff led by Consul-General Philip Grant, but also by the Irish Immigration Pastoral Centre, the city authorities, and the medical professionals.

Every assistance that can be provided for the families as they arrive from Ireland is being offered fre ely.

The tragedy is awesome, but the practicalities of dealing with death, the procedures and bureaucracy must also be tended to, as well as flight arrangements and, sadly, the reality of funeral arrangements that must be made at home to lay the deceased to rest.

Amid it all, the students have been heroic. Consul Philip Grant spoke yesterday of how they rose to the challenge after Tuesday's balcony collapse.

"The degree to which they have rallied around each other has been extraordinary.

Read more: We thought we were alone in our loss...but it happens everywhere

"Parents have come out here very worried about the state they might find their children in, have been reassured to find that there's that support, that solidarity is there," Mr Grant said.

The students are making their parents proud. Discarding the youthful energy they brought for nights out and long days at work. Using it instead to organise rotas at the hospitals and keep everybody connected.

"Where you have 14 different family groups plus the wider family groups of their friends, you need that glue. The families need to know that that continuity of community is there. That's what the J1s have been doing from the very beginning of this," Mr Grant said.

'I said to them when I met them, 'Ok, it's horrific, why? Why wasn't it me? All those questions that hit you in trauma situations, but these guys did an amazing job.

"From the word go, when this happened, they did everything that has allowed us to get everything done so smoothly and to help the families.

"You have the expression 'You stand on the shoulder of giants'. There were a lot of giants among those students after what happened."

Irish Independent

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