With two of our family on student visas in the U.S. this summer, the first news that filtered through here about the balcony collapse in Berkeley caused real concern in our house in Dublin.
One son is doing an internship in New York, so we knew he was okay. But his twin brother is on a J-1 in San Diego. It's a long way from San Diego up to Berkeley we told ourselves repeatedly as we texted him.
But we were worried all the same because you just never know. Was it possible that he and his friends -- all 21-year-olds -- had gone on a trip up to the San Francisco area? Might they have heard about the party?
As the news of the awful tragedy spread here on Tuesday afternoon last week, we texted and WhatsApped with a growing level of anxiety asking him to reassure us that he and his four friends were safe in San Diego.
There is an eight hour time difference between Dublin and the West Coast of America, so when we were calling and texting at 1 p.m. here it was still only 5 a.m. over there (the balcony had collapsed four hours earlier at 12:41 a.m.) Not surprisingly, there was no response for a while. In the end his brother in New York managed to get one of the group in San Diego who confirmed that they were all there and that the reason my son had not responded was because he was fast asleep.
We silently thanked God. You only realize how worried you are when you're told it's okay and the sense of relief washes over you.
Of course we were not the only ones. With so many Irish students on J-1s on the West Coast, hundreds of anxious parents here must have been doing the same thing. It was that shared fear of a tragedy of unimaginable magnitude that immediately made this such a huge national story that belonged to everyone here.
As Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny said in the Dail (Parliament), when we looked at the pictures of the faces of those six lovely, talented young people, any of us could have been looking at our own son or daughter. They seemed to belong to us all.
The outpouring of grief and solidarity that followed the terrible event dominated the news agenda here throughout last week and is continuing this week with the funerals.
Beyond the grief, however, are unanswered questions. In the immediate aftermath, the focus rightly was completely on the six who had died, the seven who were seriously injured and on providing all the love and support possible to the families and friends. Nothing mattered beyond the tragedy itself.
But as time moves on the focus is rightly shifting to those unanswered questions. The first, of course, is how such an appalling thing could have happened at all.
The more we learn about the construction of the balcony and the subsequent failure to identify the deadly development of dry rot, the more shocking it becomes. This is the sort of building standard and control level you might expect in a Third World country, not in a wealthy state in the most powerful country in the world.
The very idea that a balcony would be supported only by wooden beams is deeply shocking to people here. We have had some problems to do with the quality of construction during the property boom in the Celtic Tiger years here, but nothing like this.
The boom years in Ireland saw many blocks of apartments built, most of which have small balconies. But the idea that balconies might be supported by wooden beams rather than steel beams or steel-reinforced concrete beams is unheard of here.
Most of the apartment balconies here are not just decorative features but part of fire escape regulations. Almost all have reinforced concrete floors which are built into the interior construction of the building.
The contrast with what seems to be acceptable in American construction could not be more stark. To repeat, to us it's like something you would find in the Third World.
On that fundamental level, there is a serious question to be asked. How can the state of California be happy with a system that allows wood supported balconies at all?
But even if one does take the view that balconies supported by wooden beams are acceptable, there are other questions that have arisen. The investigations that are now underway are looking into the caulking and waterproofing of the balcony, the membrane used to protect the wooden beams from water, whether it was fitted correctly, whether the caulking was done properly to seal joints and keep water out, how often the balcony was checked, if ever.
Although as I write there is as yet no official finding on what caused the collapse, there seems little doubt that it was dry rot in the balcony beams caused by water intrusion.
At least one experienced construction engineer who saw the aftermath was in no doubt. And indeed you don't have to be an expert to have seen what was wrong: video footage on TV here showed the stumps of the wooden balcony beams crumbling to the touch of a city worker, a sure sign of dry rot.
The potential for failure in measures to keep water and damp out of buildings is something we know about in Ireland, given all the rain we have here. We know all about dry rot and how deadly it is. The risks of building balconies supported by wooden beams are obvious to us and that's why we don't take them.
Yet taking these risks seems to be an accepted part of construction in the U.S., based on the belief that you can eliminate such risks by adequate construction methods, building regulations and inspections. The problem is that no system is perfect and you will always have shoddy work or failing materials that are missed in inspections. And in the context of balconies that can be a matter of life or death.
Viewed from this side of the Atlantic, one can only wonder that states in the U.S. tolerate this kind of construction, particularly in apartment blocks. But it's not just balconies. As I understand it, the apartment block where the tragedy happened is a concrete construction at ground floor and timber frame on the floors above.
For fire safety reasons, this is not allowed here and all new apartment blocks must have concrete floors and fire resistant walls to limit and slow the spread if fire breaks out. Some older apartment blocks or houses converted to apartments 20 or more years ago would not conform to these standards. But all new apartment blocks built here since before the Celtic Tiger era began have had to meet the new safety standards.
You might remember that a couple of apartment blocks in Dublin which were subsequently found to not meet fire standards were controversially cleared to allow remedial work to take place at great inconvenience and cost to the occupants.
All of this, of course, comes down to money. It's far cheaper to build timber frame apartment blocks than it is to construct all-concrete buildings that are safer.
For developers and rental companies that results in higher profits. And for states in the U.S. that appears to be more important than protecting apartment dwellers, whether they are locals or visitors.
What makes the tragedy even harder for us to understand is that we now know that Berkeley city's housing inspectors found evidence of suspected dry rot at two locations in the Library Gardens apartment complex less than two years ago, the complex where the six students died last week.
RTE television here reported that Berkeley city records show that following inspections in September 2013 signs of suspected dry rot were found in a floor deck in an apartment on the floor below the balcony that collapsed and also in a common area in the complex.
According to RTE, the documents show that the building's owners and management company were given a number of weeks to address the defects, and that a subsequent re-inspection in December 2013 concluded that the issues had been addressed. A certificate of compliance was then issued the following month by the Berkeley authority giving the building the all clear.
At the very least this would indicate a less than impressive inspection regime by the Berkeley authority. Given what we know about how catastrophic its effect can be and how it can develop unseen, any appearance of dry rot in a building should have prompted a roof to basement inspection of all structural and load bearing wooden beams. Clearly if that had been done it would have identified the rotten beams under the balcony floor.
It also seems strange that alarm bells did not go off in Berkeley city's offices when in 2014, just months after the last inspection at the Library Gardens apartments, the same construction company that had built the Berkeley complex paid $3 million to settle a lawsuit over water penetration of balconies in an apartment block they had built in San Jose. Surely that should have prompted a reassessment of all blocks built by the company and re-inspections for dry rot?
The other issue in relation to this tragedy that caused disgust and upset here is, of course, the coverage in The New York Times. Let us be clear about this: The New York Times has not apologized for its disgraceful report which implied that there was a link between the Irish love of a party and the collapse of the balcony.
The paper's public affairs vice president issued a statement which included the following: "We understand and agree that some of the language in the piece could be interpreted as insensitive, particularly in such close proximity to this tragedy. It was never our intention to blame the victims and we apologize if the piece left that impression."
Notice the word "if." This a classic example of a non-apology apology. Rather than simply saying that they got it badly wrong, they are blaming us for reading the story in a way that gives the wrong impression.
We have a phrase for that here: weasel words.