Berkeley balcony collapse kills 5 Irish citizens, 1 California resident

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Alvin Wu/Staff

The collapse of a balcony in Downtown Berkeley killed six people and injured seven others early Tuesday morning.

The balcony fell from the fourth floor of the Library Gardens apartment complex near the intersection of Kittredge Street and Harold Way about 12:40 a.m., according to Berkeley Police Department spokesperson Officer Byron White. Four died at the scene, and two died at the hospital. White said a total of 13 people fell when the balcony collapsed.

Ashley Donohoe, 22, from Rohnert Park, California, and Irish students Olivia Burke, Eoghan Culligan, Niccolai Schuster, Lorcan Miller and Eimear Walsh, all 21, died from multiple blunt traumatic injuries consistent with a fall from 40 feet, according to Sgt. J.D. Nelson of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office Coroner’s Bureau.

According to the Irish Times, Schuster and Culligan had attended Saint Mary’s College in Dublin. The newspaper also reported that Donohoe and Burke were cousins.

The seven who were seriously injured were still hospitalized as of Tuesday afternoon. The injured were transported to Highland Hospital in Oakland, Eden Medical Center in Castro Valley and John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek, according to city spokesperson Matthai Chakko.

Investigators are working with building managers to discover the cause of the incident, White said. City and police officials have not yet discovered what caused the balcony to fall.

All of the victims’ families were contacted by Tuesday afternoon, and the first family members from Ireland are set to arrive in the evening. Charles Flanagan, Ireland’s minister for foreign affairs and trade, activated his department’s consular crisis center.

“My heart goes out to the families and loved ones of the deceased and those who have been injured in this appalling accident,” Flanagan said in a press release. “Our Consul General in San Francisco is in close contact with the authorities and will be providing assistance to those affected on the ground.”

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Philip Grant, consul general of Ireland to the western United States, speaks at a Tuesday afternoon press conference. Ariel Hayat/senior staff

About 8,000 Irish students come to the country annually on J-1 visas, which allow for cultural and educational exchange opportunities in the United States, according to Philip Grant, consul general of Ireland to the Western United States. Most of these students take summer jobs during their visits, Grant said.

Grant described an “outpouring” of support from the Irish community in the Bay Area and said at a press conference Tuesday afternoon that many visiting Irish students have lived at the apartment, located at 2020 Kittredge St.

“We will do everything that we can to assist these families, to bring back the remains of our loved ones and to grieve,” Grant said.

BPD Chief Michael Meehan said police received multiple noise complaints from the building but were not able to respond because other calls came in about shots being fired in South Berkeley. Had police responded to the noise complaints, Meehan said, they likely would not have told the group to leave the balcony. According to some news reports, a 21st birthday party was taking place, though authorities did not disclose what events happened leading up to the collapse.

UC Berkeley alumnus Steven Shen, who lives on the first floor of the apartment building, said he heard a bang and screaming about 12:40 a.m. but assumed the noise was due to a party.

Debris and several red cups could be seen on the ground where the balcony fell in the hours after the collapse.

Breffni Nic Eochaigh, an Irish East Bay resident, brought flowers to the scene and came to see if she could help.

“They’re a long way (from home), and they’re young,” she said. “The Irish community’s good, and hopefully they’ll pull through.”

Sean O Nuallain, who has run events related to Irish studies in Berkeley, said he thinks the Irish government does not provide enough resources to the hundreds of students who come to the Bay Area every summer. He said there ought to be a drop-in center funded by the Irish government that helps visitors find appropriate housing and work.

As of 1 p.m. Tuesday, the block of Kittredge Street between Milvia Street and Shattuck Avenue was still closed to traffic because, White said, “the rest of the balcony could still fall.”

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Alvin Wu/staff

City Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, who represents the district that includes the apartment complex, said he has received multiple complaints from building residents about habitability issues.

“This structural collapse makes us wonder if this whole tragedy could have been avoided with proper attention and maintenance,” Arreguin said in a statement.

Real estate company Greystar has managed the Library Gardens since June 2014, when Greystar acquired Riverstone Residential Group, the building’s prior property manager. The apartment complex is a relatively new building; its construction was completed in January 2007.

“The safety of our residents is our highest priority and we will be working with an independent structural engineer and local authorities to determine the cause of the accident,” Greystar said in a press release.

Chakko said the apartment complex was subject to building codes from 1998, which required balconies to hold 60 pounds per square foot. Authorities did not immediately release the fallen balcony’s square footage.

Granite Library Gardens LP owns more than $65 million in assets and is the third-highest taxpayer in Berkeley, paying about $1 million in taxes this fiscal year, according to county records.

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Kimberly Veklerov/senior staff

White said he doesn’t recall any similar incidents happening during his 16-year tenure in the police department.

“It’s a first time I’ve seen anything like this,” White said.

Authorities red-tagged three similar balconies at the apartment complex, prohibiting access to those areas. The city has ordered the property owner to perform a structural assessment of the remaining balconies within 48 hours.

A contractor, Belfor Property Restoration, assessed the collapsed balcony and planned to take down what’s left, according to BPD Sgt. Mary Kusmiss. By 5 p.m. officials had removed the remains of the failed balcony.

Berkeley Fire Department Chief Gil Dong said the Fremont Fire Department provided a stress management team for first responders.

“We’re working to make sure our police, firefighters and dispatchers get any crisis intervention that they need because of the nature of the accident,” Dong said.

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Alvin Wu/Staff

About 6 p.m., Grant held a wreath-laying ceremony at the site of the balcony’s collapse. To bagpipe music, Grant, city officials, police and firefighters gathered to lay two wreaths against the building. One wreath, Grant said, stood for the people and government of Ireland, and the other represented the Irish community in the Bay Area. Afterward, a board member of the Irish Network Bay Area draped an Irish flag across the wreaths.

“We’re going to be sending some of our brightest and our best back to their families,” Grant said at the ceremony, “(but) not as we wish.”

Senior staff writer Daniel Tutt contributed to this report.  

Contact Melissa Wen and Kimberly Veklerov at [email protected].

Correction(s):
Because of misinformation from the coroner’s bureau, a previous version of this article incorrectly spelled Olivia Burke’s name.

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  • Maybe the contractor should not have taken the cheap way out, and built the balcony
    supports out of steel instead of wood.

    If you look carefully at the news reports, where they showed the ends of these wooden supports, you can clearly see that they look as though they were rotten.

  • Mark Talmont

    There was another one of these is SF a few years back, though if my memory serves me it was a bunch of people sitting on a fire escape that time–the bolts came loose out of the wall and it fell about 3 stories resulting in several fatalities. Couldn’t find it now doing web searches though.

    Looks like there might be a loophole to be plugged. The balconies have a weight limit by code, shouldn’t they be labeled? Like the fire marshal must label all public spaces for capacity limits.

    There should also be a document on file regarding who did the building inspection, also who signed off on the final architectural plan.

  • Jj Nihilo

    and you must lick your own asshole daily based on the neurons you have left. To you some Irish J-1 visitors in Berkeley equal all the Irish in the world? you are a real dumbass. I bet you are not a student here.

  • John Fusco

    It looks to me like rotten engineered lumber…(fabricated lumber) enclosed not easily inspected. So sorry for the senseless loss of life.

  • lovestohike

    Students – I feel sorry for loss of life and for those hurt. These balconies are not for wild parties and there were way too many people out on them. Everyone wants to fault the owner of the apartment house. 911 was called an hour before by neighbors due to the wild parties. We need responsible students and this might not have happened. I feel sympathy for those impacted, but one must also learn to not repeat the mistakes to avoid such disasters in the future.

  • lovestohike

    Students – I feel sorry for loss of life and for those hurt. These balconies are not for wild parties and there were way too many people out on them. Everyone wants to fault the owner of the apartment house. 911 was called an hour before by neighbors due to the wild parties. We need responsible students and this might not have happened. I feel sympathy for those impacted, but one must also learn to not repeat the mistakes to avoid such disasters in the future.

    • Concerned resident

      Responsible students? This is clearly an issue of the building not being structurally-sound. I am appalled that you would victim-blame in this situation. The victims have absolutely no fault in this situation, as it is completely unreasonable to expect the partygoers to even consider that the balcony would not be able to support them. Elevators have weight limits too, do you walk on an elevator and calculate the total weight of the current people in the elevator in order to assess the safety? Of course not. The standards should be rigorous enough that standard use (of which 13 people standing on a balcony certainly qualifies under) should not lead to structural failure. I hope the family of the injured and dead bring the apartment complex owner to court.

      • Bob Bell

        You’re in law school, right? Those balconies look pretty small for 13 people, I’m not as sure as you are that overcrowding constitutes “standard use”. How about we wait for some facts. Also, I certainly wouldn’t get on a crowded elevator, even if I did take the time to ask everyone their weight. Of course, since asking people to use common sense enables the falling balcony culture, we certainly can’t have that.

    • Concerned resident

      Responsible students? This is clearly an issue of the building not being structurally-sound. I am appalled that you would victim-blame in this situation. The victims have absolutely no fault in this situation, as it is completely unreasonable to expect the partygoers to even consider that the balcony would not be able to support them. Elevators have weight limits too, do you walk on an elevator and calculate the total weight of the current people in the elevator in order to assess the safety? Of course not. The standards should be rigorous enough that standard use (of which 13 people standing on a balcony certainly qualifies under) should not lead to structural failure. I hope the family of the injured and dead bring the apartment complex owner to court.

  • Jj Nihilo

    I am not surprised to hear that it was Irish students. Every summer for some strange reason we get a huge group of students from that nation, and some are extremely loud and rowdy. Just a few weeks ago some Irish students were involved in a fire at a fraternity….

    I have no idea at what time of the day some of them study because they are up all night…..

    • Wolfschanze

      They didn’t die because they were students, or Irish.
      One victim was a Californian resident.

      I support your right to make these remarks, but I believe there is a more appropriate time/place. – in fact, considering 6 people have died in this tragedy, I find your comments beyond insensitive and bordering on reprehensible.

      • Jj Nihilo

        They died because they were reckless. Based on the disturbances of a few weeks ago (among them a fire at a fraternity) and last summer’s out of control partying, it is fair to say that SOME or a big chunk of those Irish on J-1 visas were behaving dangerously.

        I could care less how you find my comments. Are you an adult? Most of the things that adults say are bound to offend SOMEONE in the world, so that’s no reason to self censor yourself or doing what YOU are doing which is to try to silence me or reprimand my comments.

        Besides I never said that it was not a tragedy or that they deserved it. What other people and I saw was that the probability that something unpleasant would happen was high. Those chances just increase when people are drunk or high in urban environments late, late at night. It should be common sense to anybody traveling or partying in their home country.

        • Lisa G

          Jj Nihilo – the city authorities of Berkeley have now stated that the collapse was due to dry rot and the balcony was not full to capacity, and was intended to withstand a far greater load than 13 adults. As such, saying these students died ‘because they were reckless’ is inaccurate. You should withdraw your comments.

        • Lisa G

          Jj Nihilo – the city authorities of Berkeley have now stated that the collapse was due to dry rot and the balcony was not full to capacity, and was intended to withstand a far greater load than 13 adults. As such, saying these students died ‘because they were reckless’ is inaccurate. You should withdraw your comments.

  • Jj Nihilo

    I am not surprised to hear that it was Irish students. Every summer for some strange reason we get a huge group of students from that nation, and some are extremely loud and rowdy. Just a few weeks ago some Irish students were involved in a fire at a fraternity….

    I have no idea at what time of the day some of them study because they are up all night…..

  • Guest

    The Library Gardens apartment complex is entirely at fault here, no matter how you look at it. They failed to properly build and maintain the balcony structure and/or they failed to post a sign clearly stating what the maximum capacity/weight limit of the balcony is. And I know the latter to be true as I’ve visited the building before and have yet to see such signs on the balconies there.

    • Gene Nelson

      If you have no clue what the weight limit of an apartment balcony is, then maybe don’t just assume it’s okay to have at least 13 people on it. I’m sorry for their loss, but they have to take some personal responsibility for endangering themselves.

      • Guest

        Unless someone is involved in the construction industry, no lay person can casually determine the max capacity from scratch without knowing intermediate physics and the exact dimensions/materials used to build the balcony structure.

        For example, no one can tell whether the balcony is made of wood or steel (and there’s a significant margin in weight that these materials can support). Being able to precisely determine that fact upon casual examination, with no intimate knowledge of the building history, would require X-ray vision. The optimal weight limit needs to be clearly marked.

        • Gene Nelson

          You miss my point. I agree they don’t know what the weight limit was. That’s the EXACT reason they should not have crammed 13 (and maybe more) people onto that balcony. You’ve seen the picture, you know how small the balcony was. Overloading a balcony with that many people when you have no clue what the weight limit is can only lead to what we now have: tragedy.

          This reminds me of the woman who sued McDonald’s because she spilled her coffee onto her lap and McD’s didn’t warn her it would be hot. If you need to be told about every possible danger and get posted warnings on everything — then maybe you should stay in bed all day.

        • Guest

          The example of the “hot coffee” McDonald’s lawsuit you bring up is irrelevant to this situation and I think you may be misinformed on the details this lawsuit. The lady who sued received third degree burns, 8 days of hospitalization, and skin grafts and simply wanted McDonald’s to pay for her medical costs. McDonald’s had already put warnings on their coffee cups prior to this incident but despite numerous other complaints and injuries from other customers, their franchises continued to serve coffee at 180-190F. Presented with all the evidence, a 12 person jury had determined that McDonald’s was 80% at fault.

          Now for this case, I think we do not yet know enough facts from the investigation to really say who is at fault though I am glad to see that appropriate actions are being taken to ensure safety of tenants in the building. This is truly an unfortunate loss and my heart goes out to their family.

        • wilburthefriendly

          If you don’t think that the lease they signed stated all the building rules and regs, including capacities of apartments and balconies, you are nuts. In highly litigious CA, the owners of the building definitely advised them and all others at lease signing, and most likely, in writing. Sad accident, but no different than all the other roof/balcony/deck collapses you see every year when college kids overload a structure.

        • wilburthefriendly

          If you don’t think that the lease they signed stated all the building rules and regs, including capacities of apartments and balconies, you are nuts. In highly litigious CA, the owners of the building definitely advised them and all others at lease signing, and most likely, in writing. Sad accident, but no different than all the other roof/balcony/deck collapses you see every year when college kids overload a structure.

  • lilfry14

    Does anyone know what the weight limit the balcony would be rated for is?

  • Steve Smith

    Dont wait for an “investigation” send photographers with a 1000mm telephoto lenses to take pictures of the break off points from down the street, the state is now in “corporate protection mode” to protect the building owners, managers, City, banks that own those human husbandry farms known as “apartments”, I suspect the balcony was for “looks only”.

  • Tim L

    The apartment company that owns that building has no functional maintenance or management, I know because they “manage” my building. They often send completely unqualified people to do maintenance on my building. The rents in their buildings are exorbitant to say the least, obviously they aren’t putting any back into maintenance.

  • Jj Nihilo

    I am not surprised to hear that it was Irish students. Every summer for some strange reason we get a huge group of students from that nation, and they are extremely loud and rowdy. Just a few weeks ago some Irish students were involved in a fire at a fraternity….

    I have no idea at what time of day some of them study because they are up all night…..

  • still trying

    From video, the deck joists snapped. They look rotten with dry rot or termites. It looks like poor construction with overloading a contributing factor..

    • Pixilicious

      It also looks like criminally negligent homicide

    • wilburthefriendly

      By Cal building codes, there were at least 125% too many people on the little deck. Max is one person per every 7 square feet which would allow for 6 safely. There were apparently 14 or 15. If those kids were dancing, the load would overcome any residentially rated balcony.

      • still trying

        I totally agree. The codes that are in place today are not meant to hold up under this stress load. But look at the exact same deck, 1 floor below, that was holding two females. This balcony appears to have withstood the full weight of the deck above, including dropping several feet, plus the weight of two persons. It also was holding the weight of a few people before they fell to the ground. Is it poor design or improper flashing (construction) that allowed water to intrude and make direct contact with wood-thereby causing premature failure. And what about inspections, when was it last inspected and does that include inspections of the balcony(s). With all of the big names like Blackrock investments, the City of Berkeley; Building codes dept and the Berkeley Police Dept. all back tracking and redirecting blame and covering their butts, it will take a long time before the public will hear the truth.

        • wilburthefriendly

          I don’t want to sound macabre, but the deck that hit the deck underneath wasn’t carrying the weight of 15 additional people.

          • still trying

            But it did hold the weight of the deck and the deck dropping several feet.
            Including two people on the deck below. When the top deck fell, there must have been a few people inside the deck cage before they too, toppled to the ground. It appears from all angles the deck broke lose from all joists at the same time. Resembling a front loader bucket. The dirt does not leave that bucket until it reaches a certain angle. The angle at which; friction loses to gravity. But there is a millisecond when the deck below exceeded its weight limits and held. If this were a structural issue, the deck below would have failed as well. So, we are back to probable flashing issues and inspections. Not structural design. Which was my point, I guess.

  • still trying

    Was the deck overloaded? Where were Berkeley’s building inspectors? It looks like a brand new building.
    Either it was overloaded with kids or was not built to code.

    • Gene Nelson

      Well, there were at least 13 people on it just by the injury count.