A DECENT education followed by a decent job is the passport to a decent life.
All the victims of the Berkeley balcony collapse had good reason to look forward to that. They were already enjoying the fruits of their J1-visas, allowing them to spend a summer in sunny California while dreaming of a bright future.
June 16, 2015 was the day that dream died.
It died for Lorcán Miller, a third-year student of medicine at UCD. At his funeral service his father, Ken, recalled a “truly remarkable son, an extrovert who loved life and who wasn’t afraid to try new things.”
Friends still remember Lorcán’s impossibly good looks, his silly hats, his love of the Harry Potter saga and his pouting selfies.
It died for his UCD classmate, Eimear Walsh, who used to sing in the choir of the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour in Foxrock, Dublin.
It died for Niccolai Schuster, a UCD arts student. The willowy figure relished practical jokes almost as much as he loved football and his favourite team, Bayern Munich. His father, John, recalled the son they called ‘Nicc’ as “a fearless force of nature, a space rocket going through life”.
It died for Eoghan Culligan — ‘Cully’ to his friends — whose elder brothers Andy and Steve described him as “beautifully strange, weird and wonderful”. and by his girlfriend Sarah McCarthy as “my soulmate”.
It died for Olivia Burke whose father, Paul, said: “She packed a lot into her short 21 years, in work experience, travel and friendships.”
It died for Olivia’s American cousin, Ashley Donohoe, aged 22, who was the oldest of the six students killed. She was from Rohnert Park in the San Francisco Bay Area and due to enter fifth-year of studying biology at Sonoma State University.
It also died, in many ways, for the survivors. Another seven Irish students — Aoife Beary, Clodagh Cogley, Sean Fahey, Conor Flynn, Jack Halpin, Niall Murray and Hannah Waters — suffered serious injuries in the collapse.
For Aoife, her birthday will always be the anniversary of her friends who died.
Aoife told a meeting of California State legislators on Wednesday how she suffered a traumatic brain injury in the collapse and cannot go back to university.
“I had lacerations to my liver, kidneys and spleen. I had a collapsed lung and broken ribs,” she told legislators as they considered a new law aimed at toughening building regulations to prevent a repeat of the tragedy.
“I have lost my independence and my career goals have stopped, I couldn’t finish my final year in my college degree as I have been unable to return to college, my life has been changed forever,” she told the hearing on Bill 465.
“I can’t believe why you’re even debating this bill. People died. You should ensure that all balconies are scrutinised in this state to prevent this from happening again.”
The bill was introduced almost immediately after the Berkeley tragedy once it emerged that, despite initial claims that too many people had been on the balcony at the time, the cause of the collapse was dry rot caused by inadequate sealing at the time the apartment building was built in 2007.
At the hearing, Aoife also spoke of the loss of the friends she had known since she was four years old; friends she believes could have been saved if it was known the construction company responsible for the construction of the apartments had a history of defects settlements.
“I miss my friends so much,” she said.
The lives of the families of victims have been damaged in the same brutal manner in which the balcony collapsed. “Words cannot describe the pain I’m feeling. I’m split in two,” Nicc Schuster’s younger brother, Alexei, declared at his funeral Mass.
Alexei was sitting at the kitchen table when the news was broken to him that the brother he had idolised had died in the balcony collapse in Berkeley.
In a spasm of uncontrolled agony and grief, he ran out into the garden, and raised his fist to heaven, screaming: “I love you Nicc.”
In his poem The Mother the Irish patriot Padraig Pearse wrote: “Lord, thou art hard on mothers: we suffer in their coming and in their going... I weary, weary of the long sorrow.”
The mothers of all the victims can relate to that. Two of them gave heartbreaking testimonies to the California State Senate hearing.
Joining Aoife was her mother, Angela Beary, and Jackie Donohoe, the mother of victim Ashley Donohoe. Jackie, who has started a petition to have the bill passed, spoke about how she and her family have suffered after the loss of their daughter Ashley, 22, and their niece, Olivia Burke, 21.
“She should be here today. She should have graduated on May 24 this year. Her birthday, she would have been 23, but she’s not here. She’ll be forever 22,” her mother said.
“She’ll never get married. Her father will never walk her up the aisle, and her cousin Olivia will never be her bridesmaid. I will tell you one thing. Her father carried her up the aisle — he carried her coffin up the aisle and her beloved friend Olivia did follow her... She came after her in her coffin.”
The family of the severely injured survivors are also grieving for the uncertain future their children now face.
Following Aoife’s testimony, Angela Beary said: “I’m very, very, very angry that my bright, intelligent, independent 22-year-old daughter, instead of now spreading her own wings should find herself under mine through the negligence of others.”
You try to give your children both roots and wings. You want to provide roots that are solid, secure and safe.
Wings are another matter.
As the parent of three 20-somethings, I know that wings are essential but they are also scary. Adult children cannot fly the nest without them but there is no safety net, apart from what they have learned, what you have taught them and their own commonsense.
But even with all that, it is not possible to protect your children from every misfortune that might befall them.
It was not possible for the parents of the victims of Berkeley to protect their loved ones from the catastrophic negligence of those who constructed a balcony whose supports had all the tensile strength of a Cadbury’s Flake.
You plead with your adult children to ‘drive safe’, not to drink too much. You risk being an insufferable pain by pleading: “lay off the pot” and “text when you arrive”.
You don’t imagine telling them: “Don’t stand on a balcony.”
The agony of the Berkeley tragedy lives on for survivors and victims’ families, says Dan Buckley