Thursday 14 December 2017

Berkeley tragedy: 'I don't think six people have died all at once - it's unthinkable'

Three Irishmen wearing GAA shirts pay tribute to the victims at a makeshift memorial
Three Irishmen wearing GAA shirts pay tribute to the victims at a makeshift memorial
Inspectors examine the collapsed balcony from the top of a crane at the scene of the tragedy in Berkeley, California
Two students embrace while watching the removal of a body of one of the deceased. Photo: AP
Debris and rubble is seen behind a police corden on the pavement under the balcony
Flowers are laid at a memorial near the scene of the collapse
An Irishman lays a Dublin GAA flag at the makeshift memorial
A woman leaves a floral tribute

Aoife Anderson

Next door to the city's Public Library, locals gathered on the cordoned-off area from early morning to try to make sense of the tragedy.

Shock and anger filled the streets surrounding 2020 Kittredge Street in Berkeley, as news that six Irish students fell to their deaths from one of only two front-facing balconies on the Library Gardens complex began to spread.

A handful of red plastic beer cups that lay amongst small piles of concrete rubble were a grim reminder that the students were celebrating a 21st birthday when the horrific incident took place, but no amount of yellow police tape could prepare onlookers for the view of the railings of the lone fourth floor balcony perching on top of the one below, after apparently making an almost clean break away from the wall and glass French doors.

Read more: Officials begin three probes into what caused collapse

Around the corner from the media swarm in Starbucks, two Irish students politely declined to comment after huddling over their iPhones, texting and talking to family members to assure them they were okay.

One of the stricken young men said: "I knew them, sorry, I just don't want to speak at all."

DCU student Connor Mulligan from Dundalk, who arrived here on his J1 Visa on May 26, is worried people will try to blame the accident on alcohol.

Read more: Nation grieves as summer of adventure ends in awful tragedy

"We were actually at a baseball game last night and got off the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) at about 12 and we walked this side of the road back home about half an hour or 45 minutes before it happened. We didn't hear a party or see anyone on the balcony. We live about a 10-minute walk away up near the college. We heard the helicopters going over the house at about 6am, so it was pretty crazy.

"It will be very hard for the people that are close to them - I'd say a lot of them will go home."

Jennifer James, who originally comes from Waterford but has lived in nearby Oakland for 15 years, arrived at about 9.30am local time with a friend to offer comfort, support and a place to stay to any students affected by the tragedy.

After laying flowers on the ground, she told the Irish Independent: "It's shocking. My nephew is going into second year in college so it could have been him - it's his age group, his peers. It's very upsetting because we know how it feels to be so far away and to live 6,000 miles away from your family. I'm thinking about the kids who survived and don't have any support here."

Thousands of J1-ers come to the Bay Area to live and work every summer, with many of them choosing to reside in leafy, sun-drenched Berkeley, known for its eclectic community and comparably fog-free evenings.

Jennifer added: "I think the allure of Berkeley is because housing is so expensive and scarce in San Francisco. It's a student town and I know a lot of these students are working up in CAL because my daughter goes to summer camp up there."

Read more: Bohemian spirit and cheap rents draw students to Berkeley

By 11.30am, more grief-stricken Irish students began to arrive on the street. About 10 young women shed silent tears as they made their way home. One, who asked not to be named, said: "We've heard rumours about names, but don't know for sure yet. I'm just praying I don't know any of them."

Just weeks after moving here from her native France to begin studying at the nearby University of California, Berkeley, in August, Alison Vayne felt a close connection to the victims.

She said: "I looked at apartments around here and I stopped at Library Gardens so I'm very shocked about what happened here. The price put me off - they were very expensive, I think for one bedroom it was close to $2,000 a month - that's why I'm shocked about the quality of the balcony for that price and what happened.

Visitors lay flowers on a makeshift memorial near the scene of a 4th-story apartment building balcony collapse in Berkeley, California June 16, 2015. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage
Visitors lay flowers on a makeshift memorial near the scene of a 4th-story apartment building balcony collapse in Berkeley, California June 16, 2015. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage
Flowers and cards are left for victims from the Library Gardens apartment building balcony collapse in Berkeley, Calif. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Flowers are laid at a memorial near the scene of a 4th-story apartment building balcony collapse in Berkeley, California June 16, 2015. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage
Flowers and cards mark a makeshift memorial near the scene of a 4th-story apartment building balcony collapse in Berkeley, California June 16, 2015. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage
Flowers and a framed photograph mark a makeshift memorial near the scene of a 4th-story apartment building balcony collapse in Berkeley, California June 16, 2015. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage
Philip Grant, Consul General of Ireland to the Western United States (R) speaks to the media with Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates (L) following a wreath-laying ceremony at the scene of a 4th-story apartment building balcony collapse in Berkeley, California June 16, 2015. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage
Visitors lay flowers on a makeshift memorial near the scene of a 4th-story apartment building balcony collapse in Berkeley, California June 16, 2015. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage
Philip Grant, Consul General of Ireland to the Western United States (L) helps Neil Sands, President of the Irish Network Bay Area, lay an Irish flag atop two wreaths at the scene of a 4th-story apartment building balcony collapse in Berkeley, California June 16, 2015. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage
Neil Sands, President of the Irish Network Bay Area, pauses for a moment after laying an Irish flag atop two wreaths at the scene of a 4th-story apartment building balcony collapse in Berkeley, California June 16, 2015. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage
Visitors react as they visit a memorial near the scene of a 4th-story apartment building balcony collapse in Berkeley, California June 16, 2015. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage
Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates (C) stands next to Philip Grant, Consul General of Ireland to the Western United States (L) and Berkeley Police officers before a wreath-laying ceremony at the scene of a 4th-story apartment building balcony collapse in Berkeley, California June 16, 2015. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage
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, California June 16, 2015. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage
Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates (L) participates in a wreath-laying ceremony with Philip Grant, Consul General of Ireland to the Western United States at the scene of a 4th-story apartment building balcony collapse in Berkeley, California June 16, 2015. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage
Neil Sands, President of the Irish Network Bay Area, lays an Irish flag atop two wreaths at the scene of a 4th-story apartment building balcony collapse in Berkeley, California June 16, 2015. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage
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, California June 16, 2015. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage
A man makes the sign of the cross over his heart after laying a bouquet of flowers near the scene of a 4th-story apartment building balcony collapse in Berkeley, California June 16, 2015. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage
Mary Elzy says a prayer for victims of a balcony that collapsed in Berkeley, Calif., Tuesday, June 16, 2015. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, left, listens as Philip Grant, Consul General of Ireland of the Western United States, speaks to reporters in Berkeley, Calif., Tuesday, June 16, 2015. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, left, hugs Philip Grant, Consul General of Ireland of the Western United States, after placing wreaths at the Library Gardens apartment complex in Berkeley, Calif., Tuesday, June 16, 2015. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Toni Mikulka places flowers at a makeshift memorial for victims of a balcony that collapsed in Berkeley, Calif., Tuesday, June 16, 2015. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
A flag of Ireland is draped over wreaths at the Library Gardens apartment complex in Berkeley, Calif., Tuesday, June 16, 2015. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Flowers and a map of Ireland are left at a makeshift memorial for victims of a balcony that collapsed in Berkeley, Calif., Tuesday, June 16, 2015. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, left, hugs Philip Grant, Consul General of Ireland of the Western United States, after placing wreaths at the Library Gardens apartment complex in Berkeley, Calif., Tuesday, June 16, 2015. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, left, and Philip Grant, Consul General of Ireland of the Western United States, walk in front of a building where a balcony collapsed in Berkeley, Calif., Tuesday, June 16, 2015. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Neil Sands of the Irish Network Bay Area places a flag of Ireland over wreaths at the Library Gardens apartment complex in Berkeley, Calif., Tuesday, June 16, 2015. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Philip Grant, Consul General of Ireland of the Western United States, left, and Neil Sands of the Irish Network Bay Area place a flag of Ireland over wreaths at the Library Gardens apartment complex in Berkeley, Calif., Tuesday, June 16, 2015. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

"I'm just shocked and I'm sad. They were probably very young and just starting out in life.

"I can only imagine what the families feel like now. And for the people that live in the building too - seeing it happen, it must have been horrible."

Read more: 'We thought it was an earthquake - a really big one'

Local construction worker Morgan Subrayan, who has lived in the area of 26 years, believes dry rot is responsible for the incident.

Asked for his reaction, he said: "Mad and upset. It's a five-year-old building and it's so ridiculous that all the wood is so badly dry rotted."

He added: "It's so sad, six of them died and it's just ridiculous. Kids, college students at university, they're going to have fun, they're going to drink, but why should the structure come down.

"I'm sure they're going to find some alcohol, you see all the cups down there, but what has alcohol got to do with the structure?"

Read more: 8,000 Irish students travel to America on J1 visas every year

Morgan also believes it is irrelevant how many students were on the balcony at the time.

"The thing is this, it's dry rot. Look at it - there is no denying it and it's a five-year-old building during a drought - there is no rain. All these guys are making money; they are charging an arm and a leg to the students. This is Berkeley - you could pay $2,000 for a studio - make it safe.

"The city has to really get involved and the builder has to get involved - I think they have to change the rules and that anything above two or three stories has to have a solid iron beam."

While a helicopter flew overhead, another elderly woman, who has lived in North Berkeley since 1957, broke down in tears as she surveyed the scene on the "usually pretty quiet" street.

She said: "I am crying for those families. I came here to go to the post office, I didn't even know this happened until I got here."

Another long-time local added: "This is a very student area, a few families. I'm in shock. I don't think six people have died in Berkeley all at once in my memory. It's unthinkable."

Read more: Live: Six Irish students on J1 visas in US killed in balcony collapse

She also noticed an influx of Irish students in the area in recent weeks.

She said: "Many years ago, around 2006 there were lots of Irish students over the summer and then not, and then this summer again I've noticed them. I thought it had to do with the Irish economy, so more people can probably afford to come over now."

Oakland native Ninette Lewis, who works in education in Berkeley, said: "We're in the neighbourhood and I didn't realise how close it was. It must have been terrifying. You can still see there is a red partying cup there."

Student Elizabeth Prater, who lives in Berkeley, added: "This is going to impact a lot of people. A lot of people live here and will be really mad."

**Anyone with concerns about friends or family in the region should call the Emergency Consular Response Team on 01 4180200

Irish Independent

Promoted Links

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

Promoted Links

Editors Choice

Also in World News