The kindness of strangers can make a profound difference when tragedy strikes.
We saw that up close when the desperately sad news of the deaths of six Irish students and severe injuries to seven others occurred with the collapse of a balcony in Berkeley, California, last week.
The news struck the Irish and the Irish American community like a thunderbolt. The beautiful young faces of the dead stared back at us from every newspaper and we could only imagine the hurt and despair and grief and sadness of the families.
Yet the Irish version of the Meitheal, the old system when neighbors gathered to help a family in trouble, kicked in.
The Irish government, Ambassador Anderson, and the San Francisco Consul Philip Grant and his team acted magnificently, making profound statements on the tragedy of the loss but also working seamlessly to get the families everything they needed no matter what that was. It cannot have been easy and will continue to be tough as the injured recover.
Diaspora Minister Jimmy Deenihan delivered a solemn speech at the location of the tribute to the dead and injured which will last long after much else is forgotten. His obviously emotional reaction captured everything that his country felt.
The Irish government ordered flags at half-mast and suspended parliament the American ambassador flew the Stars and Stripes at half mast also and pledged to help in any way possible.
Hundreds of other Irish J1 students rushed to mourn, help out and be of any assistance when the dread news broke. They were not about to found wanting when their friends died so tragically.
Aer Lingus has been praised for going “above and beyond” in its efforts to assist the family of the Irish students who were killed and injured in the Berkeley balcony collapse .
On Wednesday, the victims’ loved ones traveled from Dublin to San Francisco on Ireland’s national carrier. They made special arrangements for seats, ensured that all family members were cared for and generally acted in the most compassionate way possible and did the same for the return leg.
As a mark of respect, the airline refused to sell newspapers on board, and Internet access was made available so relatives could keep up-to-date on the situation in Berkeley while traveling. Families of the victims were allowed to disembark before other passengers.
Moved by the sensitivity shown by Aer Lingus, Jonathan Wallace from Dublin posted a public message on the airline’s Facebook page.
The post received more than 78,000 likes and more than 6,400 shares.
Many others took to social media to commend the airline’s behavior and to share their own stories of good treatment from the airline.
Aer Lingus responded to Wallace’s praise by thanking him for the “kind words,”saying it was “glad to be of some assistance” and that thoughts “continue to be with the families affected.”
The priests and the Irish pastoral center in San Francisco never put a foot wrong, a powerful endorsement of their presence in large Irish cities in the US. The American Ireland Fund stepped up to the plate with a $100,000 donation to the families.
Berkeley police, the civil authorities also made heroic efforts both in the immediate aftermath and since to help the families.
The kindness of strangers means an enormous amount as a family face a huge crisis.
Three years ago my nephew Rory Staunton died tragically because of medical neglect in a New York hospital. His father and mother had to buy a coffin and fly his body back to Ireland. My wife and daughter and I traveled with them and their daughter on the worst journey of our life.
What I remember from that dreadful time was an amazing act of kindness of an immigration inspector at Dublin Airport. Rory's father Ciaran presented Rory's passport to him and explained the circumstances. The passport officer never hesitated and stamped Rory's passport and said simply, "he's home now."
Of all the moments I remember from the tragedy it was that one that stands out when I look for solace.
The kindness of strangers indeed. We Irish can be amazing at it.
We should always remember that.