Balcony collapse victims having fun before college, careers

2015-06-17 18:47
A fourth floor balcony rests on the balcony below after collapsing at the Library Gardens apartment complex in Berkeley, California. (Noah Berger, AP)

A fourth floor balcony rests on the balcony below after collapsing at the Library Gardens apartment complex in Berkeley, California. (Noah Berger, AP)

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Berkeley - A group of young Irish and Irish-American men and women were enjoying their last summer of freedom in California before cracking down with college and careers, a rite of passage tens of thousands from the Emerald Isle have taken over the past five decades.

The revelry turned tragic when a fifth-floor balcony broke loose from an apartment building during a 21st birthday party early Tuesday, tossing 13 people about 16m onto the pavement. Six people were killed and seven seriously injured.

"For many of my countrymen, this is a favourite experience, and to have this happen at the start of the season has left us frozen in shock," said Philip Grant, Ireland's San Francisco-based consul general.

Word of the tragedy spread quickly back to Ireland, and phone lines lit up as panicked parents called to check on their kids throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.

"My heart breaks for the parents," Prime Minister Enda Kenny said from Dublin.

The dead were identified as Ashley Donohoe, 22, of Rohnert Park, California, and Ireland's Olivia Burke, Eoghan Culligan, Niccolai Schuster, Lorcan Miller and Eimear Walsh, all 21. The Irish students attended various colleges in Dublin.

Police received a complaint about a loud party at the apartment a couple of blocks from the University of California, Berkeley, about an hour before the collapse. But officers were on a different call when the metal-rail balcony gave way just after 00:30. It landed on the fourth-floor balcony beneath it, leaving the pavement strewn with rubble and the red plastic cups that are standard at college parties.

Sam McCarthy, 21, who was not at the party, said his mother called at 04:00 and was relieved to know he was safe. He said he was shocked by the news - he had come to California for a fun, independent summer.

"I thought it would be a cool experience," said McCarthy, who works at Bay City Bike Rentals and Tours in San Francisco.

The Irish students who died had visas that enable young people to work and travel in the US over the summer. The J-1 visa programme brings 100 000 college students every year, many of them landing jobs at resorts, summer camps and other attractions.

The San Francisco Bay Area is especially popular with Irish students, about 700 of whom are working and playing here this summer, according to the consul general. Many work at Fisherman's Wharf and other tourist sites.

Sinead Loftus, 21, who attends Trinity College Dublin, said Berkeley is "the Irish hub". In fact, she said, "I've heard people complain there are too many people from Ireland here."

Weather

Investigators are working to figure out why the small balcony broke loose. They will look at such things as whether the balcony was built to code, whether it was overloaded and whether rain or other weather weakened it, said Kevin Moore, chair of the structural standards committee of the Structural Engineers Association of California.

City spokesperson Matthai Chakko said officials have not measured the balcony to find out how big it was and how much weight it was built to bear based on the older standard. Chakko also said there is no city requirement to post a weight restriction for balconies in apartments.

Grace Kang, a structural engineer and spokesperson for Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research Center at Berkeley, said looking at the size of the balcony, it should have held at least 635kg, which likely would have been exceeded by 13 adults.

"They were packed like sardines, and then they were moving," she said. When people are moving, it "may further exacerbate" the strain.

Also, the apartment house had wood-frame construction, and the balcony was cantilevered out from the building, with no additional support beneath. Both can make a balcony more vulnerable to dry rot and weathering in general, Kang said.

Engineering crews inspected broken beams of wood sticking out from the building, marking where the balcony had snapped off. Pieces fell to the ground as the engineers touched them.

City inspectors have barred use of the building's other balconies during the investigation.

The Library Gardens apartments are in a lively part of downtown Berkeley, and several tenants reached by telephone said it is well-maintained.

Building owner BlackRock and manager Greystar extended condolences to the victims' families and said safety was a priority.

Meanwhile, a shrine was growing below the fallen balcony: flowers, a pack of cigarettes, a Cal Berkeley banner, condolence notes.

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