On June 16, 2015 the people of Ireland and the Irish American community were struck by tragedy as six young students lost their lives in a balcony collapse in Berkeley, CA.
Olivia Burke, 21; Eoghan Culligan, 21; Lorcan Miller, 21; Niccolai Schuster, 21; Eimear Walsh, 21; and Irish-American Ashley Donohue, aged 22, were celebrating the birthday of fellow J-1 student Aoife Beary when the balcony they were standing on collapsed, flinging them from the fourth-floor apartment to the ground below.
Beary was also injured in the incident, along with a further six students: Hannah Waters, Clodagh Cogley, Niall Murray, Sean Fahey, Jack Halpin and Conor Flynn, some of whom are still recovering from injuries that may completely alter the course of their lives.
One year on, as these seven students continue to recover, as the family and friends of those lost continue to mourn, and as other Irish J-1 students present at the party attempt to come to terms with the tragedy, low-key services in San Francisco and around Ireland will quietly mark the anniversary, but also remember the incredible support system that emerged from the Irish community in its wake.
"The thing that gave them [the families] the most strength was the support they got from the friends, the J-1 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, told the Irish Independent, a thought echoed by Mike Kelly, the American attorney for 13 families.
“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, neighbors and even strangers,” said Kelly.
The U.S. Ambassador to Ireland Kevin O’Malley marked the one-year anniversary by praising the support shown by the American people in helping the families and friends to bring their loved ones home.
“We also hold in our thoughts and prayers the young people who are still recovering from their injuries; that they may continue to heal with the love and support of family and friends here and in the United States,” O’Malley said.
“The remarkable resilience they have displayed sends a powerful reminder to the world of the friendship between our people and of our capacity to unite in times of adversity.
“I hope the outpouring of love and support from the American people in the aftermath of this tragedy has provided some comfort and brought us closer together.”
Yesterday, a remembrance ceremony was held in the U.S. embassy in Dublin and a tree planted by embassy personnel in honor of the victims. A plaque in their memory was also unveiled.
“As the tree grows strong, we will take comfort in the knowledge that the memory of Ashley, Eimear, Eoghan, Lorcan, Niccolai, and Olivia, will remain with us always,” O’Malley continued.
Last March 15, a further reception was held for the victims’ families and the members of the emergency services who answered the 911 call and tended to their children.
One of the officers, Jitenda Singh, told the Irish Independent that he was on the lookout for one woman, the young woman he tended when he answered the call, not knowing her name, but always remembering her face.
Singh was finally introduced to Clodagh Cogley, a survivor of the collapse, who suffered a spinal cord injury that will most likely prevent her from ever walking again. Despite this, Cogley has vowed to honor her friends by living her life to the fullest.
"For me it was an immediate connection to her. I felt very close to her," said Singh. "It was moving and emotional.”
Former Minister for the Diaspora Jimmy Deenihan was also present at the March event, and although he traveled to San Francisco last year in his professional capacity, as with many people in Ireland, it wasn’t long until he found a connection with some of those involved.
"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.
"That night, they didn't leave Iveagh House until the late hours of the evening," Deenihan told the Independent.
"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."
Even if they did not and could not share in that emotion, the Berkeley community, the Irish in America and all of Ireland tried their best to act as a support, sending everything from money to Irish tea and snacks in the hope of lending a hand.
The acts were a “mosaic of a kindness,” Fr. Brendan McBride told the Irish Times.
McBride, who is based with the Irish Immigration Pastoral Centre in San Francisco, arrived on the scene within hours of the tragedy to comfort the injured and the victims’ families and friends, holding vigils at the bedside of those injured.
“The Irish have an ability to pull one another back,” he said. “Here we discovered through the whole Berkeley tragedy that innate goodness of the community.
Celine Kennelly, executive director of the Pastoral Centre, and Philip Grant, the Irish Consul General in San Francisco, also remember the kind acts of the community.
“They were just so fabulous,” said Kennelly. “They were all parents and had come here as young immigrants, so they had seen what it was like to go through the immigrant experience.”
Grant also emphasized that the rally of support was a more accurate reflection of the J-1 experience and provided a sharp contrast with the media's generally negative depiction of the Irish student 'rite of passage,' as the J-1 summer is often called.
“It showed a truer face of the program,” he told the Irish Times. “It’s not about drunk students or houses being trashed. When they had to deal responsibly and deal with a very difficult situation they handled themselves incredibly."
Although early reports of the collapse claimed there were too many people on the balcony at the time, it was later discovered that the wooden-frame suffered from dry rot because it had not been properly protected from water damage during the construction of this relatively new apartment complex.
In March, the California District Attorney ruled there would be no criminal charges of manslaughter brought against any one individual or company involved, citing a lack of evidence.
Although the balcony collapsed due to water trapped on the deck during construction, which in turn led to extensive rot, the materials used were all in line with building code regulations and as such, the Alameda County District Attorney, Nancy O’Malley, felt a “disregard for human life" could not be proven nor could it be shown that "the deadly consequences of those actions were reasonably foreseeable.”
The 13 families involved are currently suing the respective owners, builders and managers of the Library Gardens block, however, as are the three other young women who rented the apartment where the balcony collapsed along with Aoife Beary. Clionadh Maloney, Caroline Conlon and Aisling Tallon, who had just stepped off the balcony when the tragedy occurred, are suing for the emotional damage caused at witnessing their friends fall.