Last summer 12 Irish students in Berkeley, California were standing on a balcony when it disentegrated beneath their feet. Joe Leogue provides an update on the survivors, their search for justice and hears from students in the area today
The impact of the tragic balcony collapse that claimed the lives of six young students continues to ripple across Ireland and California.
Next week sees the first anniversary of the accident that claimed the lives of Olivia Burke, Eoghan Culligan, Ashley Donohue, Lorcán Miller, Niccolai Schuster, and Eimear Walsh.
The students were celebrating a 21st birthday at an apartment in the Library Gardens complex, in the centre of Berkeley, when the outdoor balcony collapsed, dropping them from the fourth floor to the pavement below. Twelve of the 13 of those injured or killed in the accident were Irish students visiting the US on J1 working visas. Ashley Donohue was an Irish-American cousin of Olivia Burke.
A year on, the events of June 16, 2015 continue to resonate today, beyond the life-changing impact it has had on the lives of the victim’s bereaved families and the survivors.
For Aoife Beary, Clodagh Cogley, Sean Fahey, Conor Flynn, Jack Halpin, Niall Murray, and Hannah Waters, the past year has been one of recovery from their varying degrees of injury.
Eoin Thompson, a friend of Aoife Beary’s who was at the apartment on the night of the accident, recently told 2FM that she is “doing well”.
“When we see her, Aoife is doing so well you wouldn’t even think that this time six months ago Aoife was fighting for her life,” Mr Thompson said.
Funds raised for Ms Beary have gone towards helping her return to college. The group was celebrating her birthday the night of the accident.
Clodagh Cogley returned to Ireland in August. Last November, a fundraising page in aid of Ms Cogley revealed that she had returned to college.
“She resumed her studies initially while continuing to receive in-patient rehab hospital treatment. We’re pleased to tell you that she’s also now moved back into her family home,” the page, which registered donations of over €120,000, read.
Sean Fahey was released from hospital a week after the accident and returned home to Ireland. Conor Flynn was released from hospital 10 days after the accident, but was required to stay in the Bay area for a further few weeks as his injuries prevented him from flying home.
Jack Halpin’s GAA club, St Jude’s in Dublin, has been fundraising towards Mr Halpin’s recovery. In an update last July it said he “faces a very tough ordeal in the months ahead. When his doctors have done all they can for him, a very long and complicated course of rehabilitation begins — involving, among other things, complex and intensive physiotherapy. There will also, unavoidably, have to be modifications to Jack’s home,” the statement said.
Niall Murray was the sixth of the survivors to fly home when he returned to Dublin. He had been receiving treatment in San José for a broken heel, elbow, wrist and three broken fingers.
In a press conference held shortly before he was due to return home, Mr Murray said that he felt both “fortunate” and “guilty” that he survived the accident.
“To our friends, we miss you, we will always miss you, we will never forget you and someday I look forward to seeing you all again,” he said.
Hannah Waters was the last of the survivors to leave the US when she was flown home to Ireland on September 22.
While the survivors worked on recovering from their injuries, authorities in Berkeley set out to establish was the cause of the accident, and how to prevent it happening again.
Within a month of the tragedy, the City of Berkeley introduced the Exterior Elevated Elements (E3) Programme.
The new regulation stipulated that exterior elevated balconies and other similar fixtures were to be verified by licenced experts, with the certification of each to be submitted to the council.
By the first deadline for checks last January, the E3 Programme had determined that over 400 residences in the city of Berkeley would require repairs.
Matthai Chakko, a spokesperson for Berkeley City Council, told the Irish Examiner that the authority introduced E3 to ensure that such a fatal tragedy would not happen again.
“This was an incredibly tragic situation, but City of Berkeley’s response and the creation of these measures have made hundreds of properties safer and will not only lead to safer buildings, but they will have recurring inspections to try and prevent anything like the tragedy from ever happening again,” he said.
While balconies across Berkeley were being checked, the Library Gardens fixture was undergoing intense scrutiny.
The accident sparked a nine-month criminal investigation carried out by the Alameda County District Attorney’s office, with structural engineers, waterproofing experts and architects contributing to the examination of the structure in an attempt to assess how the balcony collapsed.
“After studying the balcony remnants and reviewing forensic lab reports, experts working with this Office believe that the primary reason the balcony collapsed was because water had been trapped in the balcony deck during construction, leading to eventual and extensive dry rot damage,” District Attorney Nancy E. O’Malley said last March.
However Ms O’Malley said that criminal charges will not be brought over the accident due to insufficient evidence against any one party.
“In order to file a manslaughter case based on criminal negligence, the District Attorney must be satisfied that any defendant or defendants acted with gross or reckless conduct akin to a disregard for human life, and that the deadly consequences of those actions were reasonably foreseeable,” she said.
“Any such charges would have to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt to 12 impartial jurors, all of whom must unanimously agree,” Ms O’Malley said, adding it “is not a decision that I came to lightly”.
While criminal charges were not brought against any of the management of the complex or the construction company responsible for its development, it is expected that the findings of the DA’s investigation will be used in a civil suit brought by the families of the six victims and seven survivors.
The San Francisco-based law firm Walkup, Melodia, Kelly & Schoenberger is representing the 12 Irish families in their civil suit, while the parents of Ashley Donohue are being represented by Rains Lucia Stern.
As the families of the victims and survivors pursue their action for the events of one year ago, the Irish J1 students of today are experiencing difficulties finding accommodation in the city.
As part of a series of reports ahead of the first anniversary of the tragedy, Newstalk reporter Richard Chambers spoke with Irish J1 students on their experiences.
“We got three places sorted. The three places fell through. The main reason for that is because we’re Irish,” one student said.
“We had an apartment secured in one of the Library Gardens apartments, where the students were staying last year. Had everything sorted. Deposit ready to go. And then he said ‘oh, sorry, are you actually Irish?’
“And we said: ‘Yes, we’re Irish. We’re just over for three months, we’re working hard’. Straight away there was an excuse popping up in front of us saying, ‘there isn’t a hope you’re staying here’,” he said.
Another student said she was advised to ‘stay off balconies’.
On the Pacific Coast, the new J1 students are finding shadows of tragedy under the Californian sun.
A reminder of the event in the form of a small memorial remains at the Library Gardens site.
Flowers, notes, and six candles — one for each of those who died at the scene — form a small shrine on the Kittredge Street pavement.
“You get shivers. Even talking about it now,” one student told Newstalk last week.
“Six people came out here like we did for a good time. It could happen to anyone.”
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