Nation in mourning with families - Berkeley disaster

AS the nation mourns the tragic deaths of six young Irish students who died when a balcony collapsed during a 21st birthday party in Berkeley, California, the burning question that has to be answered is why such a terrible calamity happened in a city built on a known geological faultline where earthquakes occur frequently.

Nation in mourning with families - Berkeley disaster

Unfortunately, tragedies involving multiple deaths are inevitable and unpredictable, regardless of whether they are caused by murder, fire, mass drowning, a road pileup, an air disaster.

But in this case, on the face of it, overwhelmingly from all the visual evidence, it looks as if the collapse of the balcony was the result of negligence, and possibly criminal negligence. If so, either the builders or the planning authorities who allowed a clearly defective and unsafe construction project to go ahead must be held responsible. It is patently obvious this balcony was incapable of supporting 13 people, some of whom plunged 40 feet to their death while others suffered life-changing injuries in the fall.

But it is plain to see from TV pictures of the scene shot in the wake of this appalling event, that the balcony had literally been strapped onto the side of the relatively new apartment block where the party was going on. Making matters even worse, the structure appears to have been supported by timber beams – and not by steel girders or an extension of the apartment floor as one might expect in an earthquake hotspot. Tragically, the timbers, erected in 2007, had become so rotten, whether as a result of inadequate building standards or of poor maintenance is still unclear, that they could not bear the weight of the young revellers.

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Not only should it have been capable of bearing their weight, it should be capable of withstanding an earthquake which, as the recent Nepalese quake reminded us, could happen at any second. Further compounding the dismay of the grieving families at the loss of, or serious injury to, their sons and daughters, apart altogether of having to go through the painful experience of identifying the bodies of loved ones and preparing to bring them home, is the trauma of realising that this tragedy could and should have been preventible.

To lose such a significant number of bright young people is a heartbreaking catastrophe which has moved the nation. As the scale of the disaster began to sink in yesterday, the heart of every parent went out to the bereaved families, the Tricolour flew at half mast on public buildings, books and websites of condolence were opened, and a minute’s silence was observed in the Dáil where proceedings were also briefly suspended. President Higgins spoke for the nation when he expressed “the greatest sadness” on learning of the tragedy.

The wave of compassion will help ease the grief of the families who have lost loved ones in this terrible disaster which has claimed six young lives, leaving another in a critical condition, while five other students in hospital are described as stable. Some of them have such grave injuries that the course of their promising young lives will be changed for ever. Let us hope the immensely valuable J1 scheme will not be affected adversely by this tragedy.

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