Berkeley tragedy: Grieving families in overnight vigil with remains of students before flight home
THE families of some of the six Irish students who died after falling from a balcony in California have laid flowers at the scene before the flight to bring home the remains of four of them is due to leave on Saturday evening from San Francisco airport.
The parents of Olivia Burke, Eoghan Culligan, Niccolai Schuster, Lorcán Miller and Eimear Walsh finally saw their remains late last night.
The bodies of Eoghan, Niccolai, Lorcan and Eimear were being taken to St Columba's Church in Oakland to remain overnight as the families and students prepared for an all-night vigil.
A funeral service will be held on Saturday morning for cousins Ashley Donohoe and Olivia Burke, which will be Rhonart Park in Sonoma. Olivia's remains will then return back to Berkeley for repatriation along with her family on Sunday evening.
The families are said to be exhausted but comforted by the immense solidarity shown to them by the local community in Berkeley, as well as the Irish Diaspora and the several hundred JI students who have held two separate memorials.
Some of the families were joined by diaspora minister Jimmy Deenihan at the scene of the tragedy in Berkeley last night to lay flowers and placards at a makeshift memorial near the Library Gardens apartment complex.
Minister Deenihan laid a wreath with Gerry Culligan - Eoghan's father - and Jim Walsh - Eimear's father.
Minister Deenihan met the families of the dead and injured at the special centre set up in Berkeley Police HQ to coordinate assistance since Tuesday before joining a procession of friends and relatives to the memorial shrine.
At the shrine he spoke of the impact the tragedy has made at home and abroad.
“First of all I’d like to acknowledge here the members of the families of the deceased," he said.
“They’re all represented here this evening. It’s a very sad occasion for them. They’ve been through a very traumatic time for the last three days and the sympathy of Ireland is with you.
“I’ve never seen such an outpouring of genuine sympathy and grief from the whole country for the families of the bereaved.
"The six who are dead have become the children of Ireland. They have now become symbols of our country, and the people have responded accordingly in so many different ways.
“I would like on behalf of the Irish government and of the Taoiseach and the leaders of all political parties to express my sincere sympathy to all the families and also to the families of those people who are injured, and who are in hospital.
“We wish them a speedy recovery and also remember those people who were in the company of those who are dead at the time they died.
“It’s a traumatic time for them as well and they need our support, and they will get that support,” he said.
The Minister thanked the Berkeley authorities and the Irish Immigrant Pastoral Centre for all their assistance to the families of the bereaved and injured.
He also said: “The contribution that Philip Grant, the Consul-General here in San Francisco, and his staff has made has been quite extraordinary, and has been recognised by all the families.”
Repatriation arrangements are likely to be confirmed later today.
Yesterday the Irish Immigrant Pastoral Centre tweeted a request for people who have booked on Sunday’s flight from San Francisco to Dublin to give up their seats.
The tweet read: “Tragedy families need seats on Aer Lingus direct flight SFO-DUB on Sunday 6.21. If you would give your seat, call 415.816.0887.”
When asked about this last night Consul-General Philip Grant said: “That’s not for the families, it’s because a lot of students would like to go home in advance for the funerals.”
A joint funeral for two cousins, Ashley Donohue and Olivia Burke, who were among those killed, is due to take place tomorrow in St Joseph’s Church in Rohnert Park, about 90 minutes from Berkeley.
Afterwards, Dublin-born Olivia will be brought home to be laid to rest.
It is understood Aer Lingus has organised a flight to take home the deceased on Sunday, but some relatives are keen to fly on Saturday if at all possible.
Two of the seven injured students, Aoife Beary and Hannah Waters, were still fighting for their lives in hospital last night.
The Minister, who flew to San Francisco yesterday to offer support at the request of the Taoiseach, recalled what he and John Schuster - Niccolai's father - would have considered an everyday, innocuous conversation at Listowel Writer's week a fortnight ago.
“John, Nick’s father, spent his youth in Listowel. I knew them very well and John was down at Writers Week in Listowel, and we had a long conversation then.
“His other son Alexi was with him, and he did mention the fact that Nicky was a J1 student, but it was at Writer’s Week where a lot was happening. But they were very connected to Listowel,” said Minister Deenihan.
Meanwhile, the City of Berkeley Building Safety Department is to release documentation otday in relation to the planning and construction of the apartment block where the balcony collapsed.
The investigation in Berkeley is now focused on the water-proofing of eight critical wooden structural supports for the balcony that collapsed early on Tuesday morning.
Mayor Bates told reporters earlier this week he believed the wood had not been sealed properly and this may have led to moisture damage.
He said that appeared to be the primary cause of the tragedy - but later appeared to row back on the claims.
There have been several personal injury lawsuits over defective balconies in the greater San Francisco area in recent years, according to local legal experts.
The Library Gardens builder, Segue Construction, has rejected any suggestion two law suits against it of $3m and $3.5m over improper water-proofing of balconies in San Jose and Millbrae were in any way linked to the Berkeley incident.
Both lawsuits were settled by Segue after being taken by residents over wood rot.
"(They have) no bearing on this tragedy," Segue spokesman Sam Singer said. He said the cases involved totally different balcony types.
Authorities across San Francisco have ordered all timber-supported balconies be checked as a precaution.
The failed balcony is now in a secure storage area where the timber supports and waterproofing are undergoing rigorous engineering tests.
Meanwhile, Seque spokesman Mr Singer told Reuters overnight that his San Francisco-based public relations firm was "substantially reducing our role" representing the company, and referred further inquiries to Segue Construction President Erick Hockaday, who could not immediately be reached for comment.