Berkeley tragedy: Students gather at candlelight vigil in ‘beautiful tribute’ to their friends

Some 80% of around 800 Irish J1 students were among those that gathered at a park for a candlelit vigil to remember those who died in this week’s Berkeley balcony tragedy.

Berkeley tragedy: Students gather at candlelight vigil in ‘beautiful tribute’ to their friends

And the hundreds that gathered prayed too for the seven still in hospital recovering from the injuries suffered following the collapse.

They were joined by family members of the victims, who began arriving in the San Francisco Bay Area on Tuesday evening.

The park, a magnet and home to the city’s many, and visible, homeless street sleepers, was transformed in the darkness of the evening, a sea of bowed beads and flickering lights.

People stood in a large semi circle around a park bench, which provided the focal point for the vigil, which happened not through any official channels but was organised by the students, some of them friends of those who died and were injured.

There were two pictures of Niccolai Schuster, the hugely popular sports mad Dubliner, and one of the six who died.

In small groups, they walked towards the bench, setting candles and laying flowers.

This was good in the face of something awful, for the Irish to get together in one place, as one community, was the view of several young people canvassed.

The students’ reluctance to give their names or otherwise identify themselves has been a remarkable constant these last days.

And when they talk, there have been as many questions as answers. It reflects a certain numbness that, at the beginning of a summer of fun and work, such an incredible disaster has happened.

Philip Grant is the Irish Consul in San Francisco and has been the face and voice of the country since Tuesday morning.

He was at the park, just behind the Martin Luther King Jr Civic Center, and again spoke eloquently, again with emotion, trying to pin down just exactly what has and is happening in this northern Californian university city.

READ MORE: Berkeley: Let students express their loss and grief their way.

It was he who estimated that four out of five of the J1 students in the area attended. Many working in the service industry were given the evening off by sympathetic employers.

Mr Grant described the vigil as “very prayerful very silent and an act of solidarity” among the J1 students in the area.

“There was something spontaneous. It started last night — just the group who were at the party and their close friends,” Mr Grant 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.

It was a “beautiful way to pay tribute,” he said.

“It is through their support that the families and even ourselves are getting through the enormity of this and you know the journey we still have to travel in terms of bringing the bodies home to Ireland.” Earlier, a memorial service was held at at the Cathedral of Christ the Light in nearby Oakland. It was led by the Bishop of Oakland, Michael Barber.

Co Down native, Fr Aiden McAleenan, delivered the homily. He said that the victims’ families just want to see and touch their loved ones.

“They had one request. They want to see their loved ones. They want to touch them. They want to hold them,” Fr McAleenan said.

“It’s overwhelming, to be honest with you. All you do with parents is hold them and they are in a state of shock.” He met many of the some 32 relatives of the dead and the injured as they arrived in the Bay Area.

Several parents told him that time has just stood still, even as they rushed from Ireland.

Now, he added, all they want to do is get their children home “as fast as possible”.

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