(Published on Berkeleyside.com)
A difficult day for Berkeley came to a close wrapped in the mournful tones of a single bagpipe as Berkeley’s mayor and Ireland’s San Francisco-based consul general laid two wreaths at the site of a tragic balcony collapse.
A fifth-floor balcony at Library Gardens at 2020 Kittredge St. collapsed early Tuesday morning, plunging five Irish students and one Irish-American to their deaths and causing serious and critical injuries to seven others. What was left of the malfunctioning balcony was removed Tuesday afternoon, and an order was issued to assess the structural integrity of the building’s remaining balconies within the next two days.
Philip Grant, the consul general of Ireland to the Western United States, organized the wreath-laying ceremony that took place around 6 p.m. Grant, arriving late due to traffic, was escorted to the scene of the accident by Berkeley police officers, as well as Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates.
Officers presented the wreaths to Grant, who, assisted by Mayor Bates, held the wreaths with eyes cast down as a bagpipe melody punctuated the silence. The two men then embraced before and after laying two wreaths a few feet away from where the students fell from the balcony.
Grant and Mayor Bates then stood facing the wreaths with police and city officials for an official moment of silence. Berkeley’s City Manager Christine Daniel was in attendance, as were the city’s Police Chief Michael Meehan, and its Fire Chief, Gil Dong.
“Today has been one of the most difficult days in the history of the consulate on the West Coast,” Grant said addressing the media. “It’s hard to think of a greater tragedy.”
Grant offered his thoughts and prayers to the victims’ families, explaining that the two wreaths laid at the site came from the Government of Ireland and from the Irish community in the Bay Area.
The consul general was “overwhelmed” by the amount of support flooding in from both Berkeley residents, officials, and the Irish community in the Bay Area and beyond. “Thanks to the rapid response last night, those [injured] children were able to get to the hospital and the tragic loss of life could have been much greater,” Grant said.
Grant confirmed that the consulate will be offering counseling support to Irish students in the area, and is preparing to meet with parents of the deceased when they arrive in the Bay Area tomorrow morning.
Mayor Bates also expressed his deep sorrow at the passing of the six Irish students, who, like so many before them, had come to Berkeley lured by the excitement of a college town and the vast opportunities before them. “Our hearts go out to the Irish people, and particularly the parents.”
“We’re going to make sure this never happens again,” he said.
The six people who died early Tuesday morning have been identified as Ashley Donohoe, 22, from Rohnert Park; and Olivia Burke, Eimeair Walsh, Eoghan Culligan, Nick Schuster and Lorcán Miller, all 21 years old and from Ireland.
Neil Sands, a board member of the Bay Area Irish Network, assisted Grant in laying an Irish flag over the wreaths at the close of the ceremony. A J-1 student himself in past years, he related that many “stories of success” in Ireland come through this program. “From the Irish community perspective, we look forward to the J-1 program every year — we’re very fortunate to have that type of talent in the Bay Area.”
As the ceremony ended, a group of Irish students and supporters hung back by the police tape, struggling to comprehend the tragedy that happened less than 24 hours earlier.
“We’re going to be sending some of our best and brightest back home, and not in the way that we wanted to,” Grant concluded.