Families to learn cause of Berkeley tragedy as tributes pour in

The families of six students killed in a balcony collapse in the US are expected to learn today the early indications of the cause of the accident.

Families to learn cause of Berkeley tragedy as tributes pour in

The families of six students killed in a balcony collapse in the US are expected to learn today the early indications of the cause of the accident.

The victims – five from Ireland and one who was living in California – plunged from a fourth-floor apartment as they attended a 21st birthday party in the city of Berkeley.

They were 21-year-olds Olivia Burke, Eimear Walsh, Eoghan Culligan, Niccolai Schuster and Lorcan Miller, and Ashley Donohoe, 22, an Irish-American from Rohnert Park, a city north of San Francisco. Eimear and Ashley were cousins.

The families of some of the students have arrived in Berkeley, and some are at the hospital where their children are being treated.

The girl whose birthday was being celebrated was understood to be injured in the accident along with six others, and is believed to be in a critical condition.

Some 24 hours since the tragedy, questions are moving on to the cause of the accident, with engineering crews spending the day examining the broken wooden beams which held up the balcony.

Investigators said the building code for 2007, when the property was completed, would have included a 60lbs-per-square-foot rule for the balcony, and with 13 people on the structure it may have been overloaded.

The Library Gardens apartment complex on Kittredge Street in Berkeley – a popular building for Irish students in the city for the summer and two blocks from the University of California, Berkeley – was built with a wooden frame.

Investigations will also examine if the cantilevered structure had been affected by dry rot or water damage. City inspectors “red-tagged” the rest of the building’s balconies after the accident, banning their use.

All of those who died in the accident were understood to be in the US on J1 summer working visas, a rite of passage for thousands of Irish students every year. Some 700 Irish students are in the San Francisco Bay Area for the season.

Tributes have been paid by some of those who knew the victims personally.

Eoghan Culligan, originally from Mayo, was a Gaelic football player with the renowned Ballyboden St Endas club in Dublin since his childhood.

“Eoghan was very popular with his team mates and this tragic news is keenly felt by all members of our Club, but especially by those players and mentors who knew him well,” the club said.

Olivia Burke had interned at a local radio station in Wicklow before she travelled to Berkeley. Programme Director at East Coast FM, Mark Robinson, said Olivia had spoken about her excitement about the J1 trip to California, and the staff were saddened by the news.

Three of the dead studied at University College Dublin – Lorcan Miller, Niccolai Schuster and Eimear Walsh, who was also well known in the Foxrock area of south Dublin.

Locals gathered last night to pray.

Marcus O’Halloran, UCD student union president, said: “I can’t imagine the grief of the families and friends of those students involved. I can only extend my deepest sympathies and say that my heart goes out to them and all those affected by this catastrophe.

“This is a tragic loss, it affects the entire student community and all families in this country. I can only express my deepest condolences once again to all those affected.”

A number of the students at the party were from south Dublin and were also past pupils of St Mary’s College in Rathmines, Dublin, finishing their studies there in 2012.

Police confirmed they had initially received reports of noise from the party about 45 minutes before the tragic accident, but officers had to divert to reports of a shooting elsewhere in the city.

Philip Grant, consul general with the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs in San Francisco, aid Ireland was “frozen in shock” as the extent of the deaths of J1 students became clearer yesterday.

“For many of my countrymen it’s a formative experience and to have this happen at the start of this season is something that has left us all frozen in shock and disbelief,” he said.

“We are a very close, tight-knit group. Ireland is a small country and when you have the numbers that we had here today very few of us have been left untouched by this tragedy.”

Mr Grant said the first relatives arrived on the US west coast overnight with others leaving Dublin this morning.

Books of condolence were opened by UCD and are also being planned by Dublin City Council, while the Irish Tricolour will fly at half-mast at Government Buildings as a mark of respect.

The balcony collapse, at about 12.45am local time on Tuesday morning, caused the dead and injured to plunge about 40ft (12.2m) to the ground.

It is understood four died at the scene while two others died later in hospital.

Social workers and trauma counsellors were on hand in some of the hospitals to support family and friends of those caught up in the accident.

University College Dublin president Andrew Deeks sent a message of condolence to the family and friends of those who died.

“We cannot comprehend the desperate shock and grief they are feeling and we are heartbroken at their suffering and loss,” he said.

“Our students, like thousands of others across Ireland, head to the US each summer on J1 visas to enjoy the experience.

“It is heart-breaking to imagine that such a tragedy would strike these wonderful students when their lives are opening up to discover the world.”

UCD making its student services to those affected available in Dublin and in San Francisco while the University of California, Berkeley also offered counselling services to Irish students.

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