Sunday 15 December 2019

Meave Sheehan on Berkeley: A glimpse into the horror of that night

No one shares the emotion more than those directly affected by balcony collapse that killed six students

Olivia Burke
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

On March 15, the ornate ballroom of Iveagh House, the period headquarters of the Department of Foreign Affairs, was the venue for a poignant reception. Thirteen families gathered to meet some of the San Francisco fire and police officers who, 10 months earlier, tended to their 13 children, killed or injured when the rotted balcony of their student apartment in Berkeley collapsed and flung them on to the street below.

Jimmy Deenihan, who helped host the reception in his last days as Minister for the Diaspora, said "all of the families came in - of both those who were killed and those who were injured". So too did students who were at the celebration in Apartment 405 that night, some of whom escaped injury by seconds.

Click here to view full-size graphic
Click here to view full-size graphic

The emotion was palpable that evening. When he heard he would meet the families, one of officers, Jitenda Singh, thought there's one particular young woman he "needed to meet", he said. He had been close to the end of his shift when he responded to the emergency call about an incident in Kittredge Street, Berkeley at 12.41am on June 16 last year.

Nothing in his experience prepared him for what he saw there. But his training kicked in and he went into "medical mode", identifying those who needed help most. One young woman lay motionless on the ground.

"I touched her shoulder to see if could I get a reaction. She did react, and she moved her left arm across her body... she was moving," he told the Sunday Independent. "We knew she was alive."

He stayed with her. At the reception in Iveagh House, he sought her out amongst the families and the survivors who gathered there. "I did not know her name, or even her face, all I could remember was the clothing she wore," he said. Then someone introduced him to a young lady in a wheelchair: "This is Clodagh."

Eimear Walsh
Eimear Walsh

"For me it was an immediate connection to her. I felt very close to her," said Officer Singh. "It was moving and emotional."

"That night, they didn't leave Iveagh House until the late hours of the evening," said Jimmy Deenihan. "They were just talking to each other so much, sharing their emotions and coming to terms with the healing process, which is very important obviously. No one can share emotion more than the people themselves that are directly affected by the accident."

Thursday marks the first anniversary of the Berkeley balcony collapse that took the lives of six students and ripped apart the lives of seven others. The tragedy has left six families mourning the loss of their cherished children and seven families cherishing their children's survival, albeit with many life-changing injuries suffered in the fall.

Clodagh Cogley was one of the seven survivors, along with Hannah Waters, Sean Fahey, Aoife Beary, Jack Halpin, Conor Flynn and Niall Murray.

Eoghan Culligan
Eoghan Culligan

A glimpse of the horror of that night is contained in the sworn testimonies filed for the civil cases against the apartment buildings owner, builder and managers, who are being sued by 16 people for damages.

It was Aoife Beary's 21st birthday. She and three pals rented Apartment 405 in Library Gardens, one of several hundred Irish students on J1 visas, working for the summer in San Francisco. They were well-educated, healthy, young people working in the US to raise money for college, and were interconnected in some way.

Aoife, Eimear Walsh and Olivia Burke were ex-pupils of Loreto College Foxrock. Niccolai (Nick) Schuster, Eoghan Culligan, Jack Halpin and Sean Fahey were all ex-pupils of St Mary's in Rathmines. Niall Murray was in college in Galway as was Sean Fahey. Lorcan Miller and Eimear Walsh studied medicine at UCD, as did Hannah Waters. Clodagh, who was at Trinity, knew several of the group.

Shortly after midnight, 13 students were on the balcony in Apartment 405 when it broke loose from the building, tumbled down and struck the third floor balcony directly below it, hurling 13 students on to the cement sidewalk and asphalt pavement 40ft below. Aoife's flatmates, Clionadh Maloney, Caroline Conlon and Aisling Tallon, just "happened to step off the balcony just before the balcony broke away from the building and fell". They thought they too would be "enveloped in the collapse" as they saw and heard their dearest friends plummet to the ground below.

Ashley Donohoe
Ashley Donohoe

"During the initial chaos of the collapse, these young ladies looked down at the heap of bodies and rotted balcony lying on the ground 40ft below."

The three young women have joined the 13 families suing the various firms who constructed, owned and managed the Library Gardens block, for the severe mental and emotional harm they suffered. The civil actions are against BlackRock, Segway and Greystar, respectively owners, builders and managers of the Library Gardens block, and several other firms connected to the allegedly flawed building.

They say that water infiltrated and rotted the wooden joists supporting the balcony that would be a death trap, a finding supported by official inspectors. The local District Attorney recently decided there was not enough evidence to press criminal charges.

Berkeley has left a lasting mark on those who witnessed its aftermath, the anguish of the parents of those who died and the trauma suffered by the survivors and their families.

Jimmy Deenihan was in his office in Iveagh House when he heard the news of an accident. Then he got a call from his friend in Kerry, the son of the late playwright John B Keane, and learned that tragedy was closer to him than he first thought.

Niccolai Schuster
Niccolai Schuster

"I got a call. It was Conor Keane who said 'was Nicky Schuster one of those involved in the accident?'" said Mr Deenihan this weekend.

"The Schuster family are very good friends of mine. His mother Peig was John B Keane's sister. That connected me in with John and his brothers. Their cousins have a farm in Listowel. They spent time there during the summers," he said.

"I had met John Schuster [Nick's father] the previous Saturday night in Listowel... well, we were supposed to meet the next week to talk about promoting industry and Germany."

Lorcan Miller
Lorcan Miller

As Minister he had an official role in representing the government in San Francisco in the days after the tragedy. It transpired that the mission was also deeply personal. As it turned out, he knew several of the families affected by the tragedy. Aoife Beary's parents, Mike and Angela, are good friends of his. On the flight to San Francisco the next day, he met Lorcan Miller's parents, who also have a Kerry connection.

"There were several families [on that flight]. Some of them were sisters, brothers, relatives, but on the particular plane I was on, the Miller family were there and because I had connections with the Miller family, I spent time with them going over," he said.

"They were in shock. Everyone was in shock. Everybody was in that zone of disbelief and trying to understand how it happened and why it happened."

What made the journey even more surreal was that other passengers were unaware that parents and relatives of some of those who died and were injured were on the plane. Life went on as normal around them.

At the hospitals around San Francisco, he visited the students, he met their parents, he laid a wreath with Eoghan Culligan's father, and was at St Columba's Church when four of the dead students were laid out for those families who managed to get to the US before making the final journey home. Nick's heartbroken father was unable to travel.

"I remember even in the church, making a call at the time to John Schuster, just to say that I was looking at Nicky and he didn't even look like someone who was bruised at that time and he had his jersey on. He was a big supporter of Bayern Munich. To see the parents there, near their children, is a memory that will stay with me forever," said Deenihan.

Survivor Clodagh Cogley
Survivor Clodagh Cogley

He has stayed in touch with the Schuster family but when they meet they "speak about other things rather than about the accident... obviously it is a hugely personal thing", he said.

"I suppose in many ways, in sports and politics, I have had a fairly eventful life but this tragic event will be with me forever... as I say, I rarely speak about it to people. I deliberately just avoid it even to people who try to encourage conversation. I deliberately try not to give interviews about it. It's just an emotional experience." Deenihan, who has met several students since the accident, says their recovery has been remarkable. "It was miraculous really that although some of them may have life-challenging injuries, they have all survived and at this moment in time, are making very good recoveries."

Aoife Beary, who suffered a serious brain injury, has made an amazing recovery. "She is an extraordinary girl and she is really driven. She wants to return to normal living as soon as possible, which she is doing."

So too is Clodagh Cogley, who wrote in a Facebook post that the severed spinal cord she suffered in the collapse will probably prevent her from ever walking again, but she intended to honour the dead by living the most fulfilling life she can. She is now back at university, as are other injured students. Jack Halpin has graduated from UCD with a commerce degree.

If there is a message to be taken from the tragedy, according to Jimmy Deenihan, it would be for young people to "really value the opportunity of living in this world" and to "treasure it and develop themselves to their full potential".

The parents of the victims will encounter much coverage this week to mark the tragic anniversary of the day that destroyed or blighted their children's lives.

But one message they hope will not get lost is the role their children's friends played in reaching out and supporting them at the worst times of their lives.

"The thing that gave them [the families] the most strength was the support they got from the friends, the J1 community while they were there, and again when they went home, it was still there with them," said Philip Grant, consul general for the Western United States.

The anniversary of the tragedy will be marked privately by the families and by low key services and prayers, from San Francisco to the many parishes and communities in Dublin and around the country that are connected to the dead and injured students.

It is what the families want.

In a statement to the Sunday Independent this weekend, Mike Kelly, the American attorney for 12 families, said: "I can tell you that both the bereaved families and the injured and recovering students are grateful for all the love and support they have received from friends, neighbours and even strangers. For both the surviving families and the injured students, the road back to anything resembling normalcy will be a long journey..."

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