The families of the Irish J-1 students who survived the balcony collapse in Berkeley, CA which left six students dead are left battling with insurance companies to ensure their children are provided with the best medical care.
On June 16 a balcony at the Library Gardens apartment complex in Berkeley collapsed killing six students and severely injuring seven. The balcony was later found to have been compromised due to dry rot in the wooden structure. Those who died (below) were Lorcán Miller, Niccolai Schuster, Eoghan Culligan, Eimear Walsh, and Olivia Burke, all 21, and Ashley Donohoe, aged 22.
Aoife Beary, Niall Murray and Hannah Waters are the three students who remain in treatment in the United States. Father Brendan McBride, who runs San Francisco’s Irish Immigration Pastoral Center is helping the families.
McBride, who is being honored with a Presidential Distinguished Service Award for his work in the Irish community in the Bay Area, told the Irish Examiner, “We have learned a lot from this whole tragedy.
“One of the biggest things we’ve learned is that anyone coming away should read the fine print of their insurance coverage.
“There was, and still is, a constant battle with insurance. Even though it says they’re covered for eight, nine, or 10 million, it doesn’t necessarily work out that way as they [the insurers] want to get them back home as soon as they’re fit to travel, basically.
“They want to get them away. For us it was an eye opener as coverage is not what you think it is on the surface.”
McBride told the newspaper that the students are receiving the best possible treatment at a number of world-class medical facilities in San Francisco.
However, he said, “They were initially covered but they [the insurance companies] were more interested in getting doctors’ reports and getting them home.
“The facilities are all here and it was important therefore to keep them here and to get as much treatment here as possible – that was half the battle.”
The San Francisco’s Irish Immigration Pastoral Center has collected over $500,000 for the families. Also the American Ireland Fund, a philanthropic network, made a $100,000 donation to the Irish J-1 Berkeley Tragedy Fund and the Denis O’Brien Foundation also contributed $100,000.
“We still have about $200,000 in the fund but we’ve made a promise to make sure we cover all the students’ expenses while they’re here,” said McBride.
The three remaining students in treatment in California will return home to Ireland in the coming weeks.
McBride added, “It was Aoife’s birthday they had all been attending that night and she suffered a brain injury, but she’s doing well,” he said. “Niall fell on his hands and has to undergo more surgery, but he hopes to go home on September 11.
“Aoife is due to go home on September 6 and we’re not sure about Hannah yet, but it could be another month or so before she gets home.”
While the families continue to deal with the trauma and tragedy following the fatal collapse three separate investigations into the event are on-going. For a second time California will be asked to back new construction regulations to avoid a tragedy of this kind. Central to this will be the mandatory reporting of all legal settlements by construction firms and subcontractors.
The six timber beams supporting the balcony were riddled with dry rot. Despite the fact that the building was only completed in 2007 and underwent regular inspection.
Unbeknownst to Berkeley City, Segue Construction, which had built the apartment complex in question, had paid out $26.5 million in lawsuit settlements over the past five years.
Also, there are twin-track civil and criminal investigations by Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley, while the Contractors State Licensing Board (CSLB), which regulates California's 300,000 building firms and operators, is also reviewing what happened.