The Irish parliament (Dáil) adjourned yesterday as a mark of respect for the six Irish students who lost their lives when a balcony collapsed in Berkeley, California.
Speaking in parliament, Irish Prime Minister (Taoiseach) Enda Kenny commented, “When you look at the papers, don't you see the photos of your own children?” reading the names of the six young people who lost their lives into the Dáil record.
The Taoiseach said that Minister for the Diaspora Jimmy Deenihan is set to travel to San Francisco as soon as possible in an act of solidarity with the families of the tragedy’s six victims and the families of those seven young Irish people still in hospital care.
Last night, Mayor of the City of Berkeley Tom Bates announced that the balcony collapse was primarily caused by water-damaged wood. Initial investigations into the collapse suggest that the wood supporting the balcony was not properly caulked or sealed when the building was constructed.
“More than likely, it was caused by rain and water damage that was caused to the support beams,” the mayor said.
Five Irish students and one Irish-American student lost their lives early Tuesday morning as a balcony broke from the Library Garden complex at 2020 Kittredge Street in Berkeley. The victims were named as Olivia Burke, 21; Eoghan Culligan, 21; Lorcan Miller, 21; Niccolai Schuster, 21; Eimear Walsh, 21; and Irish-American Ashley Donohue, aged 22.
Meanwhile thousands attended a memorial service in a local park in Berkeley on Wednesday night. The memorial was organized by J-1 students and was mostly made up of Irish students in the area for the summer.
Family members of some of the deceased and injured attended.
Irish Consul General Philip Grant told the Irish Times the event was “very prayerful, very silent and an act of solidarity” among the Irish J-1 community in the region.
“This was something spontaneous. It started last night, just the group who were at the party and their close friends,” he said.
“They basically wanted somewhere public where they could gather and share their thoughts and swap news. Tonight they wanted to make it a bit bigger because the families arrived today.”
The names of the seven injured students still being treated in three different hospitals in the Berkeley area were officially confirmed yesterday as Hannah Waters, Aoife Beary, Clodagh Cogley, Niall Murray, Sean Fahey, Jack Halpin & Conor Flynn, all aged between 20 and 22.
The parents of Hannah Waters and Aoife Beary, both in a critical condition, arrived in San Francisco early on Wednesday along with the parents of one the the victims, Olivia Burke. Olivia is a cousin of fellow victim Ashley Donohue and has family connections in the area. The group was celebrating Aoife Beary's 21st birthday on Tuesday when the accident happened.
The parents of the remaining ten families arrived last night. Some of those in the hospital are believed to be stable, although they have suffered “life-altering” injuries.
The Irish Consulate in San Francisco has established a trauma center to help each family when they arrive and the city has provided staff and trained counselors to assist with consular staff. More than 500 calls were made to the department in the past two days as concerned family members attempted to contact their sons and daughters in the area.
It is being reported by the Evening Herald that all of those who died or were injured may not have been on the balcony at the time of the collapse, although it was reported that 13 people were on the balcony when it fell. It is now thought that some of the young students rushed to the aid of their friends when the balcony broke off.
Injured Clodagh Cogley has spoken about how seriously injured GAA-star Jack Halpin helped to save her when the balcony collapsed.
Clodagh’s brother told the Irish Independent, “She is awake, somehow upbeat and doing really well. [We] can’t believe how lucky she and the rest of the survivors were and Clodagh wanted to say particular thanks to Jack Halpin for grabbing her and breaking her fall.”
Clodagh’s father, Niall Cogley, director of broadcast at TV3, also told the Irish Mirror of his relief to hear she was safe.
“It’s a miracle that she’s alive,” he said. “I have been speaking to her on the phone but it’s an absolute tragedy for all the families involved.”
“She has a number of broken bones. We are flying out there first thing tomorrow morning.
“She sounded like she was chirpy enough given what had happened, but we assumed it was based on the medication she was and she put a brave face on it for us,” he continued.
While some families and friends were grateful for their miracles, others begin to come to terms with their grief. The heartbroken girlfriend of Eoghan Culligan yesterday spoke of her sadness at the loss of “the love of her life.”
Sarah McCarthy, believed to currently be in Canada, posted online to say, "No words can't begin to describe the loss I feel, I've lost the love of my life and my best friend.
"My heart goes out to everyone who lost their loved ones in this terrible tragedy.
"See you on the other side my boy. Love you forever".
Ireland has once again found itself the center of attention of the world’s media, less than a month after street celebrations followed the passing of the same-sex marriage referendum. The New York Times was greatly criticized for its coverage of the balcony collapse, for which it has now apologized.
Ambassador Anne Anderson wrote to the Editor of the NY Times, slamming the language used in an article that didn’t mention the loss of six young people in this accident until the third paragraph.
She writes: “At such a time, we found some of the language in your article today (“Six Deaths in Berkeley Cast Pall on Program”) both insensitive and inaccurate. No one yet knows what caused the collapse of the fourth-floor balcony; the matter is under urgent investigation by structural engineers. The implication of your article – that the behavior of the students was in some way a factor in the collapse – has caused deep offense.”
“It is quite simply wrong to say that the J-1 visa program is “a source of embarrassment for Ireland,” she continues.
“On the contrary, we are fully supportive of this program and we know that it brings enormous mutual benefit. Some of our best and brightest young people participate; they come for a summer in the US on the threshold of their adult lives, and take back experiences and memories that establish life-long bonds. And they make a real contribution here; one of the messages of condolence we received yesterday put it simply: “We welcome their energy and joy”.
The former President of Ireland Mary McAleese has also weighed in on the New York Times coverage, telling the paper that it should "be hanging its head in shame at how outrageously and without the remotest evidence it has rushed to judgment on those deaths."
Signing off as "Mary McAleese, former President of Ireland, 1997-2011; J-1 visa student in San Francisco summer of 1971," the former President wrote to the New York Times saying, "Today in Ireland we are hanging our heads in shock and sorrow at the needless deaths of six of our brightest and best young adults and the serious injuries to others.
"Yet within hours of the most appalling tragedy in the history of the J-1 visa program, when the one salient fact to speak for itself is the ludicrous collapse of a fourth floor balcony in a relatively new building, New York Times journalists reached for the lazy tabloid stereotype and heaped deliberate injustice on top of the most awful grief."
The New York Times Public Editor’s Journal has since acknowledged the “valid complaints” regarding the story.
Tributes are pouring in for all the victims in Ireland and in the US, as Irish people around the world flock to help the families and friends of the victims. Flags, flowers, cards and even packets of tea and Meanies crisps are among the items left in the tribute amassing at the scene. Last night the families visited the scene of the tragedy to enter the building and see the remains of the balcony.
Family members of victims visit memorial to Irish students killed in #Berkeley on Tuesday, look up at remains of balcony and enter building— Simon Carswell (@SiCarswell) June 17, 2015
A Book of Condolences will remain open today and tomorrow in the Mansion House in Dublin and a GoFundMe campaign has been established by ex J-1 students to help support the families of those who died and those who were injured.
Colin Bell, the father of young Irish man killed in a hit-and-run in New York two years ago, has offered to repatriate the remains of the victims killed in the balcony collapse.
In 2013, Colin and his wife Eithne also tragically lost their son Kevin, when he was hit by two vehicles at 3.30am on June 17, almost exactly two years before the Berkeley accident. Since then, the couple has managed the Kevin Bell Repatriation Trust to help Irish families repatriate their loved ones when tragedies occur overseas.
Speaking to RTÉ’s Liveline, Colin said that he had contacted the Department of Foreign Affairs to “tell the families that the funds are there to bring their children home.”
“When Kevin was killed, the people of Newry helped to raise a massive amount of money to him bring him home,” he said. “We’ve been using it to help other families whose loved ones have also died abroad.”
“The funds are available to help these families, and since Kevin’s death two years ago, we’ve brought 70 people home.”
Despite this, the local Irish Consul General Phillip Grant has confirmed that the American agencies running the Irish J-1 program, CIEE and Interchange, will be covering the costs of medical expenses and emergency related-costs of the incident through their insurance policy.
The bodies of the deceased are expected to be repatriated in a few days. All of the necessary autopsies were due to be carried out yesterday and then planning is due to begin.
Aer Lingus has also been instrumental in helping the families secure a quick and easy passage over to the US to be with their loved ones.
"We have been liaising with various Government departments to offer support and assistance to the families of those involved in this terrible tragedy," a spokesperson for the airline confirmed.
"Our North American office has also been assisting those involved with reservations. Our cabin crew are offering support and comfort to those families who are traveling with us. Our deepest sympathies go to the families."
Yesterday, the third floor balcony was removed from the building over concerns for safety.
A statement from the City of Berkeley announced that the balcony on the third floor, the level below the collapsed balcony, was structurally unsafe and posed a threat of further collapse. Further balconies in the building have been red-tagged until they can be further scrutinized.