A few weeks ago, Father Frank Herron stood in the assembly hall of Loreto College and presided over a Mass for the graduating class at the private all-girls Catholic school.
It was a night full of jokes and joy. An evening he described as one of the “happiest, jolliest, laugh-giving” get-togethers he had attended in a long time.
The pastor found himself standing in the exact same location Wednesday night, but for a painful reason.
He was there leading Mass to remember the lives of two former students who died in the Berkeley balcony collapse: Olivia Burke and Eimear Walsh, who graduated from the school in 2012 along with a third woman who remained hospitalized with injuries from the collapse.
“Tonight it's subdued,” Herron told the audience. “There's no music and we are here for a totally different purpose.”
As the mourners filed into the school they were invited to sign condolence books set up beside framed photographs of Burke and Walsh, both flashing broad smiles for the camera.
A class photo was also mounted on an easel.
Once inside the hall, there was standing room only and the rows were filled with current and former students, as well as teachers and parents.
Herron told the audience he had been approached earlier in the day and asked: “Where was God when this happened?”
He said God had been present in every aspect of their lives — when the students were having fun at the Berkeley party, when they were standing on the balcony in the warm evening air and also at their deaths.
As he spoke, many in the audience reached for handkerchiefs and stifled sobs.
“We are looking at an accident, and accidents happen,” he said. “We are looking at something that nobody wanted.”
“Accidents are part of our lives,” he added. “It's what we do with them and how we take them on board that's important.”
At a small makeshift altar set up on the stage, adorned with a couple of tall white candles and some white flowers, Herron read the names of all six who died.
After the service, the students were invited by the principal to stay for tea and many gathered in small huddles to comfort each other and take in the enormity of their loss.
“It's heartbreaking, you've got two young girls who are not here anymore,” said Harley Djerassi, 21, who knew Burke and Walsh, as she broke into tears. “There's nothing you can say. Nothing.”
Hundreds of mourners had gathered at Herron's church, Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, Tuesday night for an impromptu vigil that lasted into Wednesday morning.
FOR THE RECORD, 2:13 p.m.: A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to the church as our Lady of Perpetual Help. The correct name of the church is Our Lady of Perpetual Succour.
“It was totally spontaneous,” he said. “It just took off in the most extraordinary way.”
In Berkeley, as city workers continued inspecting the damaged Library Gardens apartment building Wednesday, the pile of flowers, flags and cards on either end of the cordoned-off block grew.
On the western end of the block, the sidewalk was stained with fresh wax from the candles people had lighted for those who died: Eoghan Culligan, 21; Niccolai Schuster, 21; Lorcan Miller, 21; and Ashley Donohoe, 22, in addition to Walsh and Burke.
“I did not get the privilege of knowing your names, but seeing you in our hallways, always laughing and chatting together as a group frequently made me smile,” read a note attached to a bouquet of flowers from a neighbor. “Our hallways will be much quieter without your friendly energy, and for that you will be sorely missed.”
The Irish consulate in San Francisco was working with local authorities in Berkeley to set up an incident center to offer counseling to the bereaved, while the Light of Christ Cathedral in Oakland planned to hold a Catholic Mass for victims Wednesday evening.
At Highland Hospital in Oakland, where some of the seven students injured in the fall were taken, one relative of the students paced the entrance to the emergency department. Confirming his relationship to one of the students, he didn't want to be identified, saying he wasn't ready.
“I'm shattered,” he said, visibly exhausted. “We just got in from Ireland last night, we haven't slept.”
Boyle is a special correspondent based in London.