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Berkeley balcony collapse kills 5 Irish citizens, 1 California resident

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JUNE 16, 2015

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.”

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.”

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.

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.

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.  

Corrections: Because of misinformation from the coroner's bureau, a previous version of this article incorrectly spelled Olivia Burke's name.
Contact Melissa Wen and Kimberly Veklerov at [email protected].

JUNE 17, 2015