Families prepare to bury 6 students killed in Berkeley balcony collapse

Burial and funeral preparations are underway for six students killed in Berkeley balcony collapse

Burial and funeral preparations are underway for six students who were killed when a balcony collapsed during a birthday party in Berkeley.

Family members are expected to view the six students, five of whom were Irish, and make arrangements to return their bodies to Ireland by Sunday or Monday, Father Aidan McAleenan told Newstalk Belfast. McAleenan, a pastor in Oakland, is working with the victims’ families.

A joint funeral will be held in Rohnert Park for victims Olivia Burke and Ashley Donohoe, who were cousins, he said. Donohoe, 22, will be buried in the Bay Area, while Burke, 21, will be laid to rest in Dublin, Ireland.

Arrangements will be made for the remaining victims: Eoghan Culligan, Lorcan Miller, Eimear Walsh and Niccolai Schuster, all 21. Seven other students were injured in the balcony collapse.

Irish Minister for the Diaspora Jimmy Deenihan will travel to Berkeley on Thursday to meet members of the Irish community, area residents and U.S. officials.

The students, most of whom were from South Dublin, were visiting the Bay Area for the summer and working on temporary J-1 visas.

“The tragic loss of six young lives at the beginning of a summer in California which should have been filled with new experiences, new opportunities and new friends, is simply heartbreaking,” Deenihan said in a statement.

"At this profoundly difficult time, on behalf of the government," he continued, "I want to stand with our young J-1 community in Berkeley and express solidarity with the families of the bereaved, the injured and all those affected by this terrible tragedy."

Police said 13 people were on the balcony of the Library Gardens apartments at 2020 Kittredge St. when it collapsed about 12:42 a.m. Tuesday.

Experts have raised questions over the role of water intrusion at the five-story apartment complex in downtown Berkeley, which was completed in 2007. Engineers who visited the scene said dry rot could be a factor in the collapse. Signs of dry rot were found Wednesday on a second balcony.

City officials are investigating and have seized collapsed materials.

On Wednesday, a solemn group of more than 500 people gathered at Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center park for a candlelight Mass blocks from the apartment building.

The tearful crowd, many of them Irish, bowed their heads in prayer as they were led by a priest in the Lord's Prayer. They stepped forward one by one and placed candles on the grass. Many made the sign of the cross.

Word of the vigil was spread mostly through the loose network of Irish in Berkeley. Peter Lull learned of it by working with homeless men at a YMCA across the street from Library Gardens.

"They are so beautiful," Lull said, looking at the silent crowd of young faces bent over candlelight. "These are good kids ... fiercely loyal to each other and their community."

On Thursday, Irish President Michael Higgins signed a book of condolences kept in memory of the victims. The tragedy, he said, has "deeply affected" the country.

"I think the fact that so many young people were lost in such a terrible accident has deeply affected people. Many, in their comments, were almost unable to speak in the enormity of the tragedy," he told the Irish Times.

The American Ireland Fund, a philanthropic network, has donated $100,000 to support groups that are providing assistance to students and families.

Panzar reported from Berkeley and Rocha from Los Angeles.

Special correspondent Christina Boyle and Times staff writer Paige St. John contributed to this report. 

For breaking news in California, follow @VeronicaRochaLA

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