After June balcony collapse, city, county officials take action

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Alvin Wu/File

The beige walls of the Library Gardens apartment complex flickered with reflections of emergency lights, a grim parallel to the red party cups littering the pale gray sidewalk, lying among the rubble. Before anyone could question what had led to the tragedy, paramedics first needed to determine who had even survived it, sifting through the wreckage of a fallen balcony.

The scars of the balcony collapse that killed six and severely injured seven Irish students on the early morning of June 16 still remain on the walls of the Kittredge Street complex, where black scaffolding conceals the remnants of a fourth-floor balcony, which, as a result of water damage, gave way under the weight of 13 people.

Ashley Donohoe, 22, from Rohnert Park, California, and Irish students Olivia Burke, Eoghan Culligan, Niccolai Schuster, Lorcan Miller and Eimear Walsh, all 21, died in the collapse. All except Donohoe were about 5,000 miles from home, college students enjoying their summer in the United States while on a J-1 visa.

“There are no words to describe how terrible of a tragedy it is and also something that could have been prevented,” said Berkeley City Councilmember Jesse Arreguin.

Months later, the incident’s responsible party remains undetermined. Families, attorneys and city officials have pointed fingers at Segue Construction Inc., the company that built the faulty balcony.

Segue is now involved in a criminal investigation being carried out by the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, announced June 25. At the press conference to announce the investigation, District Attorney Nancy O’Malley said county officials would look into what degree of negligence could be demonstrated, possibly leading to involuntary manslaughter charges.

“Each of you deserve to have this matter thoroughly and exhaustively investigated,” O’Malley said at the press conference. “We will do so, and that is the pledge that I make from my office.”

There are no updates in the ongoing criminal investigation, according to Assistant District Attorney Teresa Drenick.

Segue has also faced multiple unrelated lawsuits throughout the Bay Area regarding water intrusion, most recently beginning in November, when families of the six deceased victims and seven survivors of the crash filed lawsuits against Segue, the investment company BlackRock Associates LLC and the real estate management company Greystar, among other firms that helped design, build and manage the apartment complex.

The plaintiffs allege that Segue used cheaper materials than what the blueprints initially called for and that the apartment complex was exposed to months of rain in 2005 while it was in the midst of construction. They also alleged that BlackRock and Greystar ignored tenants’ findings of mushrooms growing from the balcony between 2008 and 2010. The first complex determination hearing in the case will take place Tuesday at the Rene C. Davidson Courthouse in Oakland.

“It is our clients’ hope … that as a result of the disclosure of the wrongdoing, appropriate industry, legislative and other responses will be undertaken to prevent similar tragedies from occurring in the future,” said the plaintiffs’ lawyers in a statement.

A Segue representative could not be reached for comment.

Before the ordinances were approved, there was no city law stipulating that balconies and other exterior structures exposed to moisture be periodically inspected.

City Council has since passed ordinances on balcony construction, effective immediately, to prevent a similar tragedy from striking the community again. The council mandated in July inspections of weather-exposed structures every three years. The ordinances also approved more stringent construction regulations, ensuring that balconies have ventilation and that they are built with more durable materials.

At the same meeting, the council voted to send a letter to the California Building Standards Commission, urging it to require steel reinforcement in new balconies in an attempt to foster a statewide dialogue on the security of structures and the efficacy of current building codes.

There’s still work being done in the city, though, to adopt the most comprehensive safety standards possible. A task force composed of engineers, architects with waterproofing expertise and other building officials has met nine times to devise recommendations regarding structural materials and other improvements to the ordinances the council passed in July, according to city spokesperson Matthai Chakko.

The task force aims to present its recommendations to City Council early next year, he said. But for now, city management remains enveloped in a somber state of hindsight.

“The goal is, one, to prevent a terrible tragedy from happening in the future, and making sure that we are constructing balconies to the strongest safety standards possible,” said Arreguin, who spearheaded the ordinances. “It’s unfortunate that it takes a tragedy for us to take a closer look at strengthening our laws.”

Contact Andrea Platten at [email protected].