The party was supposed to be a happy affair – a celebration of life and the start of a summer of traveling and working in the United States. But it ended tragically when a fourth-floor balcony collapsed early Tuesday, killing six Irish students and injuring seven others.
The revelers were attending a 21st birthday party at an apartment building near UC Berkeley when the balcony gave way before 1 a.m., throwing more than a dozen people to the concrete below, officials said. It was unknown what caused the structure to collapse.
The people killed were all Irish citizens, including five believed to have short-term visas to work this summer in the United States, said Siobhan Miley, a press officer at the Irish Embassy in Washington. The sixth person who died held dual Irish-U.S. citizenship, Miley said.
The Alameda County Sheriff-Coroner’s Office identified one of the victims as 22-year-old Ashley Donohoe of Rohnert Park. The other victims were identified as 21-year-old students from Ireland: Oliva Burke, Eoghan Culligan, Niccolai Schuster, Lorcan Miller and Eimear Walsh.
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Donohoe was a standout soccer player at Rancho Cotate High School in Rohnert Park, coach Dennis Holmberg Jr. said. After four years on the varsity team, she joined Holmberg to help lead the Storm, a local soccer club for girls.
“I made her a coach with me right out of high school,” Holmberg said. “She was very energetic and very passionate about the game. She was very outgoing, very bubbly, someone who just cut to the chase and gave it to you straight. The girls on the team really liked that.”
The Irish students were in the United States on J-1 visas that permit them to work and travel for about 10 weeks, according to Philip Grant, the Irish consul general in San Francisco. About 8,000 Irish nationals participate in the program annually, with 3,000 in California and 700 in the Bay Area.
“This is normally one of the most exciting moments in these kids’ lives,” Grant said at a news conference. “To have it end this way is heart-wrenching. It’s a national tragedy.”
Seven people injured in the fall were taken to Bay Area hospitals. Three of them – one man, two women, all in their early 20s – were taken to Highland Hospital in Oakland, corporate communications associate Jeannie Dougherty said.
Others with injuries were taken to Eden Medical Center in Castro Valley and John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek, Berkeley officials said. Calls to those hospitals were not immediately returned Tuesday.
The tragedy occurred at the Library Gardens apartments at 2020 Kittredge St. The apartment complex houses many young foreign nationals, including international students attending UC Berkeley.
Inside the building, a female Irish student who answered the door Tuesday afternoon at the apartment where the balcony collapsed was visibly distraught. Alcohol cans and a balloon that read “Happy Birthday” were inside.
“We’re not talking to anyone,” she said, waving her hand before slamming the door shut.
At a news conference, Berkeley police said they received a noise complaint about the party at 12:02 a.m. Tuesday, but they did not respond to the apartment because of another call for service in south Berkeley, where shots had reportedly been fired. Neighbors reported hearing a loud crack at about 12:40 a.m. that lasted for two seconds, followed by friends of the victims who spilled into the hall sobbing and screaming for help.
Police Chief Michael K. Meehan said it was “highly doubtful” that the balcony’s collapse could have been prevented. Even if police had responded to the initial noise complaint, he said, “The officers are not going to do an inspection,” adding that he did not know whether the students were already on the balcony when the noise complaint was made.
Berkeley officials said the balcony that collapsed and three other similar balconies in the building had been red-tagged and closed to public access. The property owner was ordered to remove the failed structure immediately and perform a structural assessment of the other balconies within 48 hours, officials said.
The Library Gardens opened in 2007, which was the last time building safety officials conducted a large-scale check on the property, city spokesman Matthai Chakko said.
The business manager for the Library Gardens apartments could not be reached Tuesday.
The shocking loss of young people celebrating on the eve of a summer adventure in the United States drew an international outpouring of grief and condolences on social media sites. Dozens of reporters descended on the Berkeley apartment building, where visitors laid flowers, cards, a pack of Parliament cigarettes and a Dublin sporting flag.
“It’s just kind of overwhelming because it could have been anywhere, could have been any one of us,” said Gemma Parsons, an Irish student. “So many Irish people come to Berkeley. … We work all of our summers to save up money for this one trip out to California.”