An outpouring of support after Berkeley balcony collapse

An outpouring of support after Berkeley balcony collapse
The coffin of Eimear Walsh arrives Tuesday in Dublin, Ireland. She was among the six Irish students who died after a balcony collapsed in Berkeley last week. Five bodies have been returned to Ireland, and the sixth laid to rest near Santa Rosa, Calif. Seven were injured, some with head and spinal trauma. (Brian Lawless / Associated Press)

It has been a week since a balcony collapse at an apartment complex here shattered the lives of 13 families and sent Ireland into mourning.

The tragedy left six Irish students dead, one of them a Rohnert Park, Calif., resident with dual citizenship. Seven were injured, some with head and spinal trauma.


What followed was an outpouring of support, from the Berkeley police and fire personnel who shuttled loved ones from airports, offered a command center of sorts for the grieving and provided sustenance and counseling.

From the hospitals that carted day beds into conference rooms for the friends and relatives of the injured.

From hundreds of Irish students who make up the annual summer diaspora of J-1 visa holders and flew in from as far away as New York.

And from Bay Area priests and ordinary Irish expatriates who sat with the distressed and injured, purchased toothpaste and other sundries for family members of the hospitalized, offered hugs and shared tears.

"I am just overwhelmed by gratitude," said the Rev. Aidan McAleenan of St. Columba Catholic Church in Oakland, who offered his services Tuesday morning through the San Francisco-based Irish Immigration Pastoral Center. He spent days ministering to the youths and their families, and held a wake in his sanctuary for four of the dead.

"All stops were pulled out," he said. "The community rallied. And anybody with a heart was supportive."

Five bodies have been returned to Ireland, and the sixth laid to rest near Santa Rosa, Calif.

Sean Fahey, who broke his leg, was released from Castro Valley's Eden Medical Center on Monday and returned home Tuesday with his parents. Two other survivors — Jack Halpin and Conor Flynn — were listed in fair condition at John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek. Among the remaining four — Clodagh Cogley and Niall Murray at Eden, and Aoife Beary and Hannah Waters at Oakland's Highland Hospital — the arduous process of healing is ongoing.

"In a number of cases it can take weeks before we know the extent of the physical trauma, and there's going to be mental trauma as well," said Philip Grant, the San Francisco-based Irish consul general for the West. "They're all on a long road to recovery.… It's our job to make sure it's as smooth a road as possible."

Continuity of care is key, Grant said, so some of the injured and their families are likely to remain in the Bay Area for some time.

Grant described an emotionally wrenching week that came with a blessing as friends of the dead and injured — all ages 20 to 22 — became "the glue that held the broken hearts together."

Students held the hands of the dying and injured and then fanned out to the hospitals, Grant said. They enabled first responders to identify the victims, matching descriptions of tattoos and outfits worn at the party, bringing "all of the pieces of the puzzle together," he added.

Students also helped Grant notify families back home, and at Grant's direction monitored Twitter for any misinformation and "came down on it like a ton of bricks."

The decades-old J-1 visa program allows university students to work and travel in the U.S. and has brought tens of thousands of young Irish men and women here for summer jobs. In the days following the tragedy, many flew in from New York, San Diego and Chicago to offer support.


"They acted collectively, they stayed together, they formed their own support structures," Grant said.

Grant was awakened in the early hours of June 16 by Berkeley Police Sgt. Sean Ross. So began an unusually tight collaboration with police and fire personnel here.

In the joint administration building, city officials set aside conference rooms for those who had seen their friends plunge four stories, for those who learned of it afterward, and for the bleary-eyed and shell-shocked families who trickled in after trans-Atlantic flights. The city's mobile crisis team provided counseling. The coroner and vital records personnel worked to expedite death certificates.

Also playing a key role was the Irish Pastoral Immigration Center, which conducts an orientation each year for the J-1 students and links them with jobs and lodging.

McAleenan first came to the U.S. in 1986 as a J-1 student. He was in a small room in the rectory the morning of the collapse when a friend on Ireland's West Coast texted to ask if he was on his way to the hospital. Stunned by the news, he immediately called the pastoral center's Rev. Brendan McBride, who dispatched him to the Walnut Creek and Castro Valley hospitals.

McAleenan lost his father to suicide and his mother and brother died within six months of one another. Now, he was thrust back into the rawest stage of bereavement. In Walnut Creek, "I had to communicate to one of the young guys that his best friend had died," he said. At Eden hospital, he was there when Cogley and her family learned that her spine "was seriously compromised."

"I anointed her and prayed and we even sang a hymn," he said. "The mother kept saying to me, 'She's alive, she's alive.'"

As Murray, covered in blood, was wheeled into surgery, he sought a favor from McAleenan. "Could you tell the others that I'm asking for them," he said, "and I love them."

A fund set up by the pastoral center has attracted nearly $220,000 and the consulate has received other large donations, Grant said. Bay Area tech companies — each with a strong presence in Ireland — have also stepped up.

Grant said Facebook and Google pulled employees off flights between Dublin and San Francisco so family members could have the seats. Salesforce employees helped the consulate secure hotel accommodations near hospitals and get access to business rates. Airbnb has offered lodging for families, he said.

On Sunday, McBride delivered a homily at a San Francisco mass that drew a crowd of 1,000.

"He said he was asked this week, 'Where is God?' recalled McAleenan, who collaborated with him. "Then, not being theological or spiritual he put it into plain terms. God was in the hugs and the hospitality and the prayers of everybody that embraced us."

Twitter: @leeromney