6 who died in Berkeley balcony collapse are identified; inquiry begins
Less than 24 hours after the collapse of an apartment balcony killed six people in Berkeley, authorities are turning their attention to helping victims and their families and to determining what caused the accident shortly after midnight Tuesday.
The three men and three women killed were all current or recent college students; all but one was a resident of Ireland. Seven other people sustained serious injuries when the packed fifth-floor balcony sheared off and victims plunged to the sidewalk below.
FOR THE RECORD
A previous version of this article said the balcony should have withstood up to 60 pounds per square inch. The measurement is pounds per square foot. Also, Olivia Burke’s name was misspelled as Oliva.
“Ireland is a small country and when you have the numbers that you had here today, very few of us have been left untouched by this tragedy,” said Philip Grant, consul general of Ireland to the Western United States.
Grant, speaking during an afternoon news conference in Berkeley, said that family members were expected to arrive from Ireland as early as Tuesday evening.
Those killed were Olivia Burke, 21; Eoghan Culligan, 21; Niccolai Schuster, 21; Lorcan Miller, 21; and Eimear Walsh, 21. The sixth victim was identified as Ashley Donohoe, 22, of Rohnert Park in Sonoma County, north of San Francisco.
The Irish Times identified Schuster and Culligan as former students of St. Mary’s College in Rathmines, Dublin. The paper also reported that Burke and Donohoe were cousins. Donohoe’s family members strongly identified with their Irish heritage, according to one neighbor, who referred to them as “the Irish couple down the street.”
Police said 13 people were on the balcony when its collapse was reported at 12:42 a.m.
“We’re still looking into what happened,” both at the party and with the structure of the balcony, said city spokesman Matthai Chakko. As a precaution, the city barred the use of three similar balconies on the property.
The accident happened at Library Gardens, 2020 Kittredge Street, a five-story complex with at least 175 units on a side street between the Berkeley Public Library and Berkeley High School. The complex is just west of Shattuck Avenue, a major street on the west perimeter of the UC Berkeley campus.
City records show the Library Gardens apartments were proposed as a mixed-use development in 2000. It was under construction from 2005 to 2007, according to a city official, with its final inspection in January 2007. The property has underground parking, 3,000 square feet of commercial space on the ground floor and 8,903 square feet of shared open space.
The complex is one of scores scattered throughout this busy college town, where thousands of students abandon college-run dorms by the end of their sophomore year. The buildings vary greatly in age and condition. A large graduate student community also competes for apartments.
Library Gardens served students as well as summer visitors and long-term Berkeley residents. The property was bought in 2007 by New York-based BlackRock properties, an investment firm with more than $4.7 trillion in assets. It then was leased to Virginia-based Greystar, which manages more than 400,000 residences nationwide.
Rent for one- and two-bedroom apartments ranges from $2,150 a month to $4,000; in online reviews residents expressed a broad range of opinions about the quality of the property’s management.
City Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, who represents the area, said the building was “one of the newer apartment complexes in Berkeley.”
He added: “I trust that the Berkeley Fire Department will be able to find the cause of this tragedy, and that this investigation will make sure such events like this do not happen again.”
The building was erected under 1998 building codes, and the balcony should have withstood up to 60 pounds per square foot, according to the city.
But one expert suggested that water seeping into the horizontal support beams could have caused dry rot, contributing to the collapse.
“It appears to be a classic case of dry rot, meaning water intruded into the building [and] rotted the wood” that supported the balcony, said Gene St. Onge, a civil and structural engineer in Oakland. With more than a dozen people on the balcony, “It gave way. It didn’t have enough residual strength, and it failed.”
St. Onge said photos that he reviewed Tuesday morning, showing the broken wooden beams protruding from the building that once held up the balcony, reveal what clearly looks like signs of dry rot.
A structural failure without any dry rot would have looked different, St. Onge said.
The balcony should have been able to support the weight of 13 or 14 people, he added.
Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates called the incident “a wake-up call” and noted that 13 buildings are under construction in the city.
Until the collapse, said eyewitnesses and investigators, the gathering was a typical college-town party, notable mainly for its late-night volume.
Nearby residents had complained to police about the noise just after midnight, one of several noise complaints police fielded that evening, according to Berkeley Police Chief Michael K. Meehan.
He said officers did not respond because four minutes later, the department received multiple reports of shots fired in the southern part of the city.
“That’s where our officers were dispatched to,” he said. “It’s reasonable to assume that shots being fired are a higher priority than a noise complaint.”
After the balcony collapsed, he added, his officers were at the scene two minutes later.
The event was apparently a 21st birthday party celebration.
“I was asleep when my parents woke me up because there was a noise,” said Jason Biswas, 16, a Berkeley High School student who lives in the building. “We thought it was an earthquake until we looked out the window. I looked down and it was just death. I didn’t know what was going on.
“There were about 12 bodies on the ground and one girl was on the curb,” he continued. “There was lots of blood and debris. Then about 10 ambulances came.”
At least eight ambulances, along with multiple fire station vehicles, responded, according to audio tapes of communications with emergency personnel. The audio also refers to people dead at the scene, using the code “10-55” to denote a case for the coroner.
“Chief, we have three 10-55s, seven additionally transported to various hospitals. Uh, what do you think about having an investigator come in?” a firefighter asked. “I’ll wait until you get here and we could talk face-to-face.”
Four people were pronounced dead at the location and two died later at hospitals. Other victims are believed to have life-threatening injuries.
For hundreds of Irish college students, flocking to California for the summer has become a rite of passage.
On Tuesday, UC Berkeley officials said they could not confirm whether any of the victims had ties to the university or were part of a summer program at the school.
Government officials in Ireland said the Irish students who died appear to have been in the United States on J-1 visas for the summer.
“I think it’s reasonable to assume that they are all young, Irish J-1 students in California, and it’s also noteworthy that up to 35% of our J-1 student complement visits the California region during their J-1 stay,” said Charlie Flanagan, Ireland’s minister for foreign affairs.
About 8,000 Irish students applied for the J-1 visa in 2014, officials said. To qualify, students have to be currently enrolled in, and actively pursuing, a degree or a full-time course of study at an accredited institution. Seniors can apply as well, but must do so before graduation.
Ivan Harrow, president of Irish Network Bay Area, said there are hundreds of Irish college students working in the city.
“A lot of that is because of a previous generation of immigrants who relocated from Ireland have been coming to the Bay Area for many years,” Harrow told the Los Angeles Times. “When these students come, it’s comforting to have someone local.”
Harrow called the summer work program a “long-running tradition.” The Bay Area has become a desirable location because of its ties to the Irish community, young population and good weather, he said.
Among the statements of condolence that flooded in was one from the Union of Students in Ireland.
“Every year thousands of students travel the world to broaden their horizons and learn from other peoples,” the organization said. “We urge students overseas to take care today wherever they are, and to [take] the time to phone home and check in.”
All that was left of the fifth-floor balcony were two metal side rails -- about 5 feet high -- that used to stand on either side of French doors. The street below was littered with red plastic cups, cans and stucco.
Cab driver Vikas Aggarwal, 40, said he was waiting at the Berkeley station in downtown when four Irish students ran to his car. He drove them to Highland Hospital where some of the injured were taken.
“They said their friends were being sent to Highland Hospital and they kept telling me to hurry, hurry, hurry,” he said. “They were all crying.”
Outside the apartment complex Tuesday morning, a handful of Irish students huddled together to mourn the loss of their friends.
A bunch of irises and a box of tissue 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.”
A similar tragedy occurred in 2003 in Chicago, where 13 people, mostly college students and young professionals, were killed when the deck they were standing on collapsed during a barbecue. An investigation found it likely crumbled under the weight of too many people. The owners were ordered to resolve code violations at that building, as well as 21 other properties in Chicago.
In March, at least eight people were injured when a flat garage roof crowded with students collapsed during a “St. Fratty’s Day” party in San Luis Obispo.
Anyone seeking information about a family member or friend is urged to call the Irish Emergency Consular Response Team at +353 1 418 0200.
Los Angeles Times staff writers Sarah Parvini, Howard Blume, Javier Panzar, Veronica Rocha and Shelby Grad and special correspondent Christina Boyle contributed to this report.
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