Berkeley tragedy: The sorrowful homecoming nobody ever anticipated
It was in very different circumstances that they had last gathered together at Dublin Airport. The contagious excitement and exuberance of the youngsters would have sensibly swept away the niggling trepidation in the hearts of their parents as they waved them off.
This was to have been the adventure of a lifetime and it would be embraced by all.
Never could a homecoming as tragic and as sorrowful as this have been envisioned, as a few scant weeks later, the same families gathered again at Dublin Airport to take their children home.
This time, they carried with them a burden of insurmountable grief.
As the remains of four of the students killed in the balcony collapse in Berkeley, California arrived back on Irish soil, a blanket of sadness seemed to envelope the airport and its surroundings.
The coffins that held the remains of Niccolai Schuster, Lorcán Miller, Eoghan Culligan and Eimear Walsh were brought home, accompanied by their grieving relatives, on board Aer Lingus flight EI 146, direct from San Francisco.
Olivia Burke's family will return to Ireland today, accompanying her remains.
In a fitting and oddly reassuring coincidence, the plane was named for St Columba - also the name of the church in Oakland, California, where a joint service was held for the students before the remains left for Ireland.
Due to land at 11.35am, the flight touched down early yesterday, at 11.07am.
Father Des Doyle, chaplain of the Dublin Airport church, was on hand to preside over a brief prayer service shortly after arrival.
All took place with the complete privacy and respect requested by the family and the authorities had worked well to ensure a seamless transfer.
A group of around a dozen young male students - friends of the deceased - had gathered at the Collinstown VIP suite in Dublin Airport in a sign of respect and support. A Garda escort then led a cortege of three hearses from Dublin Airport onto the M50, with gardaí in black gloves directing traffic.
In a deeply poignant and dignified tribute, gardaí posted at roundabouts formally saluted the remains as they passed.
There was a delay before the hearse containing the coffin of Niccolai Schuster set off from the airport shortly after 12.30pm, accompanied by four garda outriders, with the remains again solemnly saluted by gardaí along the route.
In a moving statement issued before they departed for Ireland, the families thanked the students who were in the apartment and apartment complex that fatal night.
"The manner and speed at which they reached out to our families, to our Consul, and to each other was faultless," they said.
"Our children were extraordinarily blessed in their friends and we are enormously proud of them.
"As we leave Berkeley and return home to Ireland with our beloved sons and daughters, we would like to thank everyone in America and Ireland for their sympathy and support, which has been a tremendous comfort to us at this tragic time."
A funeral service held for cousins Olivia Burke and Ashley Donohoe heard how, just as they had been inseparable in life, they were also inseparable in death.
Monsignor Dan Whelton told the funeral for both girls in St Joseph's Catholic Church in Cotati of the moment Ashley Donohoe's mother, Jackie, saw her daughter's body next to Olivia Burke's.
After receiving the tragic news, the devastated mother had rushed from her home northwest of Berkeley to the scene at Kittredge Street.
"She went down to Berkeley and as she saw the bodies they were holding each other," said Monsignor Whelton.
"They weren't twins but they were very close. Ashley went back and forward to Ireland and in life they were like twins and in death they are together too."
The remains of both girls were brought into the church to the haunting sound of 'She Moved through the Fair', played on bagpipes.
Addressing the parents of Ashley and Olivia, Monsignor Whelton said: "We have suffered a great loss."
And while some may say it was "the will of God," he reassured mourners that God did not want this tragedy to happen.
He spoke of the cousins' closeness to one another and how they would dress alike to try to fool their parents.
He spoke of Olivia as being 'unselfish', kind, fun-loving and with a great work ethic.
"She was a person who was more concerned about the other person than about herself," he said.
In a statement read afterwards, the Burke and Donohoe families vowed to fight to make changes so that no family will ever have to go through what they have been through.
The students had been "responsible young adults who were celebrating their friend's 21st birthday in what they felt was a safe environment," they said.
Unfortunately, that turned to tragedy through no fault of their own, they added.
Olivia's remains were transported across the Golden Gate Bridge at 11.45am local time yesterday, escorted by a San Francisco Police Department cruiser and an unmarked SFPD jeep. Olivia's remains arrived in San Francisco International Airport at approximately 12.30pm local time, where they will be flown back to Dublin later this afternoon.
Four SFPD motorcycles escorted a bus carrying Olivia's family to San Francisco International Airport at approximately 2pm local time. Olivia's family were accompanied on the bus by Philip Grant, Consul General of Ireland for the Western US. The SFPD cleared traffic en route to the airport, ensuring Olivia's family arrived there safely.
A wake for Eoghan took place at Fanagan's Funeral Home in Dundrum yesterday before his remains were brought to his family home.
He will remain there tonight before his removal tomorrow to the Church of the Annunciation in Rathfarnham for his funeral Mass at 11am.
Eimear is reposing at Fanagan's Funeral Home, Dundrum, from 2pm until 5pm today.
Her funeral Mass will take place tomorrow at 11am in the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour in Foxrock. This will be followed by burial at Shanganagh Cemetery.
Niccolai is reposing at his home this evening from 5pm until 8pm.
His removal is on Wednesday morning to the Church of the Three Patrons, Rathgar, for funeral mass at 11am and then to the crematorium at Mount Jerome, Harold's Cross.
Olivia will be reposing in Fanagan's Funeral Home, Aungier Street, tomorrow from 5pm until 8pm.
Her removal will take place on Wednesday morning to the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, Foxrock, for funeral Mass at 11am followed by burial in Deansgrange Cemetery.
Plans are still being finalised for the funeral of Lorcán Miller from Shankill in Co Dublin.
His funeral is expected to take place later this week but details have yet to be confirmed. The body of the UCD student was brought back to Ireland yesterday by his parents.