Friday 6 December 2019

Pain and loss of Berkeley tragedy has yet to fade one year later

Liam Kelly

It's 7am on Tuesday, June 16, 2015, and I'm at the media centre of the US Open golf championship at Chambers Bay, near Seattle, Washington.

I'm just about to deliver my menu of stories for the day to the newspaper team back in Dublin.

But minutes later I'm scrambling back to my hotel, starting a journey that was to bring me to the heart of what Jimmy Deenihan, then Minister for Diaspora, would describe as "one of the most tragic events that has happened abroad for Irish people in the history of the country".

A vigil in Peace Park near the scene for the Berkeley victims the night after the collapse. Photo: Getty Images
A vigil in Peace Park near the scene for the Berkeley victims the night after the collapse. Photo: Getty Images
Ashley Donohoe

Berkeley. The balcony collapse at apartment 405 of the Library Gardens complex on 2020 Kittredge Street. Several Irish J1 students dead and many injured.

I'm 1,400km away, the closest Irish Independent journalist. The priority now is news, not sport.

Thus began the most physically and emotionally challenging story I've covered in my career.

Eimear Walsh
Eimear Walsh

By the time I arrived at the accident site, the sense of tragedy and shock was palpable.

Students, local people, passers-by, TV and print media gathered beside the growing phalanx of flowers, posters and mementoes that were constantly being placed outside the barrier shutting off the street from traffic.

Looking up at the 12-metre drop from the third floor balcony, I had to block the disturbing mental images of bodies falling through the air in the darkness, thudding onto the hard, unyielding concrete.

Get to work. Seeking witnesses, enquiring of people at the scene about their reactions. Looking for words from the students, trying to establish exactly what had happened.

Eoghan Culligan
Eoghan Culligan

Six dead - Olivia Burke, Lorcán Miller, Eimear Walsh, Eoghan Culligan, Niccolai Schuster, and Irish-American Ashley Donohoe.

Seven very badly injured - Clodagh Cogley, Hannah Waters, Niall Murray, Jack Halpin, Sean Fahey, Conor Flynn and Aoife Beary.

All 13 of them aged between 20-22.

No media person, particularly from the Irish whose ranks swelled over the next day or two, wanted to be doing this job, at this time, in this place. But we had to do it, at the same time appreciating the sensitivities as best we could.

Lorcan Miller
Lorcan Miller

From then on, night and day blended into a constant mental calculation of time-zones, deadlines to be met.

A candlelit vigil took place in the Dr Martin Luther King Civic Centre Park, Peace Park, near the accident site on the Wednesday night.

Homeless people camped out there. Day or night, music usually blared from ghetto blasters.

But as the students came with their candles, their posters and messages for the fallen and the maimed, the ghetto blasters were turned off. It was no coincidence.

The police, who kept a discreet and sensitive presence, were there in appropriate numbers.

Nick Schuster
Nick Schuster

There was also this big guy, possibly ex-police or military, who approached me. Put it this way - I wouldn't have argued with him about anything.

"You Irish?" he asked. "Yeah," says I.

"There were some guys playing their music over there. I made sure they put it off. We gotta show respect. These kids come to our community every year. We welcome them. They should be safe here.

Olivia Burke
Olivia Burke

"This is a terrible thing to happen them. They deserve respect, so they gotta have it."

Jimmy Deenihan arrived on Thursday. I had covered Jimmy's GAA career since he and the great Kerry team first emerged in 1975. He didn't play favourites with his access or his quotes, but it helped that we knew each other.

Friday brought a trip to Oakland, where four bodies were being received for prayers at St Columba's, Fr Aidan McAleenan's church.

Students supported the injured, and comforted the families of the dead and injured at the hospitals as much as they could.

Through it all, it was just so crushingly sad, never more so than on Saturday at Cotati in Sonoma County, about 100km from Berkeley, where the coffins of cousins Ashley Donohoe and Olivia Burke were placed side by side for American-born Ashley's funeral service.

The piper's lament 'She Moved Through the Fair' cut through the air and into the hearts of the mourners. Olivia was later to be taken for repatriation and burial in Dublin.

Sunday, into San Francisco to cover a memorial Mass at St Mary's Cathedral.

The bodies of the remaining five of the dead were being brought back to Dublin through the weekend. The injured had to wait longer, before they would be well enough to return home.

Monday morning I was back in San Francisco to interview Irish consul general Philip Grant for a wrap-up piece, but it turned out he was not available to do it. Such is life. No complaints from me.

Grant had been immense in leading the response throughout the week. He and his staff had existed for days on minimal, if any, sleep.

At 5am on Tuesday morning, June 23, I was on a flight back to Chicago where I had first made landfall on US soil 11 days beforehand en route to one of golf's four Major championships.

A year later, my fervent wish is for the best possible physical, mental and emotional recovery of the injured.

And that my colleagues at the Euro 2016 championships get to report only on sporting matters, and not on human tragedy, in the coming weeks.

Irish Independent

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

Don't Miss