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Most students killed in Berkeley balcony collapse were with popular Irish program

5 killed in Berkeley balcony accident were Irish students on J-1 work visas

For hundreds of college students in Ireland, flocking to California for the summer has become a rite of passage.

They arrive in Berkeley each year not to fill UC lecture halls, but to work on temporary J-1 visas, the federal Work Travel Program that allows students to live and work in the U.S. for up to four months.

On Tuesday, officials said five of the six students who died in a balcony collapse just after midnight near UC Berkeley were Irish students here on J-1 visas: Oliva Burke, Eoghan Culligan, Niccolai Schuster, Lorcan Miller and Eimear Walsh, all 21 years old. The sixth victim was Ashley Donohoe, 22, of Rohnert Park in Sonoma County, north of San Francisco.

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FOR THE RECORD

Balcony collapse: In the June 17 Section A, an article about the deadly balcony collapse in Berkeley misspelled victim Olivia Burke's name as Oliva.

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The students were mostly from South Dublin. They would have landed summer jobs at such places as Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, hoping to get a feel of what it's like to live in the U.S. and to learn the value of work, said Philip Grant, Consul General of Ireland to the Western U.S.

"There isn't a family in Ireland whose children haven't come over on that program," Grant told reporters. "Very few of us have been left untouched by this tragedy."

About 8,000 Irish students applied for the J-1 visa in 2014, officials said. To qualify, students have to be enrolled in, and actively pursuing, a degree or a full-time course of study at an accredited academic institution. Seniors can apply to the program as well but must do so before graduation. Officials said as many as 35% of Ireland's J-1 students come to California.

"A lot of that is because a previous generation of immigrants who relocated from Ireland have been coming to the Bay Area for many years," said Ivan Harrow, president of Irish Network Bay Area. "When these students come, it's comforting to have someone local."

The Bay Area has become a desirable location because of its young population, ties to the Irish community and good weather, he said.

Come June, the Irish brogue permeates cafes, bars and apartments around Berkeley.

"They come to work, to study, to party," former Berkeley City Councilman Gordon Wozniak said. "They certainly add an international flavor."

Many Irish students come to California because "Ireland is kind of fascinated by the States," said Sinéad Loftus, a 21-year-old student at Trinity College in Dublin who is in Berkeley on a J-1 visa.

"A J-1 is so popular because you're there for longer and get to experience the culture," she said. "Irish tend to go where other Irish have had good experiences."

Loftus, who came to California about three weeks ago, is waiting for the final confirmation that she can work at Zara, a clothing retailer.

"The likes of us work at Old Navy, Chipotle, Clarks, Macy's," she said.

Loftus' roommate is also an Irish student on a visa. The pair woke up to messages and phone calls asking if they were OK.

"We're still in shock, trying to sift through messages from family and friends," Loftus said. "It's like a nightmare. It could have been us."

Tuesday morning, outside the apartment complex where the accident happened, a handful of Irish students huddled together to mourn the loss of their friends.

A bunch of irises and a box of tissues with a card reading, "Dear Irish students ... we are so sorry to hear of your loss," was left outside the complex. It was signed, "A Berkeley Irish-American mom."

sarah.parvini@latimes.com

Twitter: @sarahparvini

veronica.rocha@latimes.com

Twitter: @veronicarochaLA

Times staff writer Javier Panzar in Berkeley contributed to this report.

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