Balcony death families arrive in US

Published: Wednesday 17th June 2015 by The News Editor

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Families of some of the Irish students who died in a balcony collapse at a 21st birthday party have arrived in the US.

The six dead – five from Ireland and one who was living in California – were killed when they plunged from a fourth floor apartment in the city of Berkeley.

They were Ashley Donohoe, 22, an Irish-American living in Rohnert Park, a city north of San Francisco, and 21-year-olds Olivia Burke, Eimear Walsh, Eoghan Culligan, Niccolai Schuster and Lorcan Miller.

A number of the dead studied at University College Dublin and had travelled to the US west coast to work using special J1 visas, a rite of passage for thousands of young Irish students.

Seven others who were injured in the horrific accident were being treated at hospitals in the San Francisco Bay area, with some said to be critically injured.

Police confirmed they had initially received reports of noise from the party about 45 minutes before the tragic accident but officers had to divert to reports of a shooting elsewhere in the city.

Philip Grant, consul general with the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs in San Francisco, spoke of the trauma, shock and grief suffered by hundreds of Irish students in the bay area as the death toll rose yesterday.

About 700 Irish students are in the region on J1 working visas for the summer.

“For many of my countrymen it’s a formative experience and to have this happen at the start of this season is something that has left us all frozen in shock and disbelief,” he said.

“We are a very close, tight-knit group. Ireland is a small country and when you have the numbers that we had here today very few of us have been left untouched by this tragedy.”

Mr Grant said the first relatives arrived on the US west coast overnight.

Books of condolences were opened by UCD and are also being planned by Dublin City Council while the Irish Tricolour will fly at half mast at Government Buildings.

A number of the students at the party were from south Dublin and were also past pupils of St Mary’s College in Rathmines, Dublin finishing their studies there in 2012.

Mr Culligan was from Co Mayo.

The balcony collapse, at about 12.45am local time on Tuesday morning, caused the dead and injured to plunge about 40ft (12.2m) to the ground.

It is understood four died at the scene while two others died later in hospital.

Investigations by local authorities in the city are centring on how many people were on the balcony when it collapsed and the stability of the structure.

The complex in Library Gardens off Kittredge Street was completed in January 2007 and, only two blocks from the University of California Berkeley, it was a popular destination for Irish students to stay while on working summers.

Pictures showed the balcony appeared to have broken off from the building and partly landed on a third-floor balcony below as well as in the street.

All other balconies were sealed off by City of Berkeley officials and “red-tagged” blocking their use ahead of 48 hour deadline for the owner to carry out a structural examination.

Social workers and trauma counsellors were on hand in some of the hospitals to support family and friends of those caught up in the accident.

UCD making its student services to those affected available in Dublin and in San Francisco while the University of California Berkeley also offered counselling services to Irish students.

Charlie Flanagan, Ireland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, said the close relatives of those killed were notified an hour before they were officially named by local police.

“The families who have been bereaved in the tragedy in Berkeley earlier today have now all been contacted,” he said.

“I again want to express my deepest sympathy to the families and loved ones of those who lost their lives in this appalling incident. We continue to provide all possible consular assistance to those affected.”

Published: Wednesday 17th June 2015 by The News Editor

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