Saturday 21 April 2018

Two eyewitnesses now say Berkeley balcony was 'sloped'

Priest who assisted the families speaks of the profoundly poignant moment parents of the dead comforted each other

Workmen examine the damage at the scene of the balcony collapse in Berkeley, California
Workmen examine the damage at the scene of the balcony collapse in Berkeley, California
TRAGEDY: The rotted beams that caused the balcony to collapse
Fr Aidan McAleenen, who helped the grieving families when they came to see the bodies of their loved ones

Maeve Sheehan and Niamh Horan

As funerals took place last week for the six students who died when a balcony collapsed in Berkeley, a priest has paid tribute to the bravery and generosity of their parents.

Fr Aidan McAleenan, from Co Down, who has been helping affected students and their families, described how the parents put aside their own personal grief to console one other when they saw their children's bodies for the first time.

"I was at the crisis centre for the families coming in off that flight. There were about 30 of them. The families of the young ones that were in hospital, they wanted to go directly to the hospitals. The families of those who had died came in (to the crisis centre)," he said.

"We wanted to shield them from all of the red tape and all of the things that we could, like getting them from the airport, getting them to hotels, getting them everything they needed. But you couldn't shield them from that because they needed to know when they could see their children. That was their first want."

Niccolai Schuster (right)
Niccolai Schuster (right)
Olivia Burke
Eimear Walsh
Lorcán Miller
Ashley Donohoe
Eoghan Culligan

The remains of two students, Ashley Donohoe (22) and her cousin, Olivia Burke (21), were being brought to Ronhert Park for the funeral service. Fr McAleenan was tasked with finding a funeral home for the other four students who died in the tragedy, Niccolai Schuster, Lorcan Miller, Eimear Walsh and Eoghan Culligan.

Read more: A sort of homecoming

He eventually brought them to his own parish church, St Columba's in Oakland: "I thought to give them the privacy we thought they needed, I would put one casket in the house, one in the small chapel we have, and then two in the main church. But when the families came, they wanted them to be all together," said Fr McAleenan.

The caskets came in at 2.30pm. After the preparations were made, he opened the door of the church. "I opened the doors of the church and they walked in. The level of emotion when those families got to their caskets was something I can't get out of my head. We just stood back because that was the first time they were seeing them, that was the reality of it.

"After a wee while, the priests went to each of them. Then after a while, the parents began going to one another's caskets. That was powerful. They wanted to help one another," he said. "They were ministering to one another and caring for one another."

It is understood that Fr McAleenan is one of a number of people who have been contacted by lawyers in recent days as a criminal investigation opens into the cause of the balcony collapse.

Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates (L) hugs Philip Grant, Consul General of Ireland to the Western United States, following a wreath-laying ceremony at the scene of a 4th-story apartment building balcony collapse in Berkeley
Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates (L) hugs Philip Grant, Consul General of Ireland to the Western United States, following a wreath-laying ceremony at the scene of a 4th-story apartment building balcony collapse in Berkeley
The remains of the damaged balcony are removed from the 4th-story apartment building in Berkeley. Photo: Reuters
Injured student Jack Halpin
Police hold up sheets as medical staff take away the bodies of the dead students at the Library Gardens apartment complex in Berkeley.
Stunned onlookers at the scene of the tragedy
Visitors lay flowers on a makeshift memorial near the scene of a 4th-story apartment building balcony collapse in Berkeley, California

The District Attorney in Alameda County opened a criminal investigation on Thursday into the collapse of the balcony at Apt 405 Library Buildings, where a gathering of more than 30 Irish J1 students gathered to celebrate a 21st birthday and to plan their summers.

The investigation was launched after the City of Berkeley local authority earlier concluded that extensive dry rot was the sole cause of the failure of the wooden joists holding the balcony in place.

Lawyers acting for the family of one of the six dead students, Ashley Donohoe, told the Sunday Independent that the names and contact details of witnesses, and any other evidence gathered will be given to the DA, Nancy O'Malley.

Conor Flynn
Conor Flynn
Jack Halpin (left)
Hannah Waters (right) was also injured
Niall Murray

At least two students told lawyers they observed that the balcony was "sloped" prior to its collapse.

Eustace de Saint Phalle, a lawyer with Rains Lucia Stern, told the Sunday Independent that it was known that the balcony had a slight slope to allow water to run off. "But we believe there may be some witnesses who feel that, maybe, the slope was more significant."

Mr de Saint Phalle said the Donohoe family, who live in Rohhert Park, north of Berkeley, were concerned about the independence of the initial investigations and asked the legal firm to intervene.

"The Donohoe family immediately saw in the press certain statements that raised their concerns about the investigation and whether it was independent," he said.

"They asked if we could make sure that evidence was being preserved... We felt it was very important to step in and send 'preservation of evidence' letters to the city of Berkeley and responsible parties."

The law firm has started making its own inquiries into "critical areas a criminal investigation should look at".

Read more: Third investigation launched into Berkeley tragedy amid claims balcony was 'sloping'

"One thing we are looking for are witnesses prior to the balcony's collapse," he said. He added that there was significant water staining on the outside of the building. "I can tell you that the family are very appreciative of the fact that the DA has stepped in," he said.

Seven students were injured in the tragedy. They include Hannah Waters and Aoife Beary, who are believed to be the most seriously injured, Niall Murray, Jack Halpin, Sean Fahy, Conor Flynn and Clodagh Cogley, who last week told friends that she may not walk again.

Fr McAleenan, who spent last week visiting the injured students in hospital, was with Clodagh shortly after she got the news.

"Clodagh had just found out about her back, that it could be a life-changing injury and what the prognosis of that would be. I went into the room when that had just been announced. It was very heavy, but there was a bunch of students there. I anointed her and prayed with her," he said.

Later Clodagh posted on her Facebook page: "The thing I'm taking from this tragedy is that life is short and I intend to honour those who died by living the happiest and most fulfilling life possible. Enjoy a good dance and the feeling of grass beneath your feet like it's the last time because, in this crazy world, you never know when it might be."

The bodies of Lorcan Miller, Niccolai Schuster, Eimear Walsh, Eoghan Culligan and Olivia Burke were brought back to Ireland last week. Hundreds turned out for their funerals which took place on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday in south Dublin.

Environmental activist and legal rights campaigner Erin Brockovich is due to travel to Ireland in the coming days to reach out to the families at the centre of the Berkeley tragedy.

Speaking to the Sunday Independent this weekend, Ms Brockovich said that, although the companies involved in the disaster are worth billions, lives have been lost and "I don't know how you ever put a dollar figure on that".

"They just need to know the truth and no money can bring back that child but they are certainly entitled to any legal recourse they may have. Our system allows for that. And they shouldn't be put through any more grief," she said.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News