6 Killed, 7 Badly Hurt in Berkeley Balcony Collapse

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Update: 1:35 p.m.: Berkeley police, city officials and the Alameda County Sheriff's Office coroner's bureau held a press conference updating details of Tuesday's fatal balcony collapse.

Here are a few highlights:

Alameda County Sheriff's Office spokesman Sgt. J.D. Nelson said five of the six victims were 21-year-olds from Ireland, all in the Bay Area on a student exchange summer work program. The sixth fatality was a woman from Rohnert Park in Sonoma County. He identified the six victims as:

  • Olivia Burke, 21, Ireland
  • Eoghan Culligan, 21, Ireland
  • Niccolai Schuster, 21, Ireland
  • Lorcan Miller, 21, Ireland
  • Eimear Walsh, 21, Ireland
  • Ashley Donohoe, 22, Rohnert Park

Philip Grant, the Republic of Ireland's consul general for the western United States, said the victims were among 700 students in the Bay Area right now as part of the U.S. government's J-1 student exchange visa program.

Grant noted that the highly popular program is something many Irish students look forward to as a "wonderful experience, a wonderful time" and a "formative experience."

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The balcony collapse, which also left seven students seriously injury, "has left us frozen in shock and disbelief," Grant said.

He added that the Library Gardens apartment complex on downtown Berkeley's Kittredge Street has been home to "many Irish students for a large number of years. There are many questions we'd like to know the answer to" regarding the cause of the collapse.

Grant said victims' family members would begin arriving in the Bay Area tonight and asked the media to respect their privacy.

Many questions at the press conference focused on the events leading to the tragedy. Berkeley officials said it's too early in the investigation to comment on the structural integrity of the balcony.

City spokesman Matthai Chakko said the building was likely last inspected in January 2007, upon its completion. Subsequent inspections would have been required if there was significant work done in the building, he said.

"As there are tenant improvements and other things, other inspections are done," Chakko said.

He added that city inspectors were sent to the building soon after the collapse. Beside ordering the building owner to complete a structural assessment within 48 hours, Chakko said, the city is conducting its own inquiry into the condition of the balcony and three similar structures in the complex.

Police Chief Michael Meehan was asked about reports that Berkeley dispatchers received a noise complaint from the building in the hour before the incident.

He confirmed a complaint was received at 12:02 a.m., one of several the department received from around town near midnight. But Meehan said that four minutes later, a higher-priority call arrived -- shots fired reported by several callers in South Berkeley -- and officers were dispatched there. Meehan said Berkeley officers were on the site of the collapse, which is two blocks from police headquarters, within two minutes after it was reported.

Update, 12 noon: The Alameda County coroner reports that a sixth person has died of injuries suffered in the early morning Berkeley balcony collapse.

Four people, all Irish college students, died at the scene in downtown Berkeley. Nine seriously injured students were rushed to East Bay trauma units after the incident, and two of those have now died.

Berkeley officials red-tagged three similar balconies at Library Gardens, the 176-unit downtown apartment building that was the scene of this morning's tragedy.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle:

The reason for the balcony collapse was not known. Berkeley police homicide investigators were among those on the scene, and investigators were in contact with the building’s owner, authorities said.

Gene St. Onge, an Oakland civil and structural engineer, reviewed a picture of the detached balcony at the request of The Chronicle. [Pictures appear to depict wooden supports that snapped or sheared off immediately beneath the doorway onto the fifth-floor balcony.]

While stressing that his assessment was preliminary, St. Onge said, “This appears to be a classic case of there being inadequate waterproofing at the point where the deck meets the house. If the waterproofing is substandard, rainwater can enter the building, causing dry rot, which can destroy the wood members within a short time, i.e. only a few years from construction.”

A man leaves flowers at an impromptu memorial for victims of Tuesday's balcony collapse in downtown Berkeley.
A man leaves flowers at an impromptu memorial for victims of Tuesday's balcony collapse in downtown Berkeley. (Erik Neumann/KQED)

The city of Berkeley has ordered the owner of the building, which was completed in January 2007, to inspect the other balconies to determine their structural integrity.

Update, 8:30 a.m.: Five people were killed and eight others seriously injured early Tuesday in a balcony collapse at a decade-old apartment building in downtown Berkeley.

All of those killed and injured are Irish nationals, exchange students visiting the Bay Area to work for the summer.

The balcony was on the fifth floor of the Library Gardens apartment building, on Kittredge Street next door to the main branch of the Berkeley Public Library and just a few blocks from the campus of the University of California.

Berkeley police say the collapse occurred at 12:41 a.m. during what's reported to have been a 21st birthday party for one of the students.

The small balcony suddenly flipped downward, rotating 90 degrees and sending partygoers plunging to the street below. The fallen balcony came to rest upside down on a balcony immediately below.

Four people died at the scene, officials say. One other died at a local hospital. The eight injured, some of whom suffered life-threatening injuries, were taken to trauma units to Oakland's Highland Hospital, Eden Medical Center in Castro Valley and John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek.

According to KCBS, those hospitalized at Highland are two women and one man, reportedly all from Dublin. All three are said to be undergoing emergency surgery for undisclosed injuries. Four of the victims were taken to Eden and two to John Muir.

Berkeley police say they had received a noise complaint from the Library Gardens building about an hour before the collapse but had not yet responded.

Gerald Robinson, a North Berkeley resident who had been at a movie on Shattuck Avenue, told KQED's Julia McEvoy he was sitting in his car nearby when ambulances began racing to the 2000 block of Kittredge Street.

He encountered students at the scene whom he said asked him to drive them to Highland Hospital in East Oakland, where friends had been taken.

"It must have happened really fast," Robinson said. "The kids who were inside who I was with said they were just gone. There was no warning -- it was just suddenly, boom."

Here's a witness account, by way of Berkeleyside:

Owen Buckley, an Irish student who lives in the building but was not at the party, said he heard a loud noise when the accident took place, but had not known what it was.

“We heard a massive wallop and lots of people scream,” he said. “We thought someone had been shot.”

Buckley estimates that about 50 Irish students with three-month visas live in the building. Many of them work at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, he said.

Buckley said one of the girls at the party is a fellow student of his in Ireland, adding, “She’s in the hospital. I hope she’s OK.”

And from the Oakland Tribune:

Dan Sullivan, 21, a student who has been in the country for three weeks, lives on the first floor of the complex. Sullivan wasn't at the party, but knew someone there.

"We just heard a bang in the middle of night and shouting," he said. "It's just a shocker, it's crazy," said Sullivan. He is a laborer and said the Irish students at the party were also workers, some in local restaurants.

Also from Berkeleyside, here are some details on the owner of the Library Gardens development:

Library Gardens is a relatively new building. It is owned by Greystar, a large apartment developer and manager.

Greystar, a Houston-based developer and real-estate management company that owns or manages more than 400,000 apartments around the country, owns and manages five apartment complexes in Berkeley, including Berkeley Central on Center Street, Hillside Village Apartments at 1797 Shattuck Ave. and Telegraph Commons Apartments at 2490 Channing Way. Greystar also owns The Varsity building at 2024 Durant Ave., which is scheduled to open in July.

Here's more via the latest Associated Press account of the tragedy:

By Kristin J. Bender
Associated Press

BERKELEY — A fourth-floor balcony crammed with partygoers celebrating a 21st birthday collapsed early Tuesday near the University of California's Berkeley campus, killing six people and seriously injuring seven — many if not all of them Irish students visiting the U.S. over the summer.

Police and fire and building officials were investigating the cause of the tragedy.

The roughly 5-by-10-foot balcony with metal railings and a concrete floor snapped off the side of the stucco apartment building just after 12:30 a.m. It tipped downward and landed on the 3rd-floor balcony below, spilling victims onto the pavement.

"I just heard a bang and a lot of shouting," said Dan Sullivan, a 21-year-old student from Ireland who was asleep in the five-story building. Mark Neville, another Irish student in the building, said: "I walked out and I saw rubble on the street and a bunch of Irish students crying."

Police had gotten a complaint about a loud party in the apartment about an hour before the accident but had not yet arrived when the balcony gave way, police spokesman Officer Byron White said. Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny said police told him 13 people were on the balcony.

All least five of the dead were Irish students in the country on so-called J-1 visas that enable young people to work and travel in the U.S. over the summer, Ireland's foreign minister said.

The U.S. government's J-1 program brings 100,000 college students to the U.S. every year, with many of them working at seasonal labor at resorts. The San Francisco Bay area is especially popular with Irish students.

Sinead Loftus, 21, who attends Trinity College Dublin and is living this summer in a different apartment in Berkeley, said a few hundred Irish college students from many schools head to the area to work and travel. Berkeley, she said, is "the Irish hub."

"It's student-friendly, it's warm and it's a lot cheaper than San Francisco," she said. In fact, she said, "I've heard people complain there are too many people from Ireland here."

The Library Gardens apartment complex where the tragedy happened is a couple of blocks from the Berkeley campus and a popular place for students to live. After the accident, city building inspectors barred use of the balconies while they are checked for safety.

The apartments were built in 2006, the Los Angeles Times reported. The complex is managed by Greystar Management, whose website says the company operates more than 400,000 units in the U.S. and abroad. A call to Greystar officials was not immediately returned.

Within hours of the accident, small makeshift memorials with flowers sprang up on the pavement.

"My heart breaks for the parents who lost children this morning, and I can only imagine the fear in the hearts of other parents whose children are in California this summer as they seek to contact them now," Ireland's prime minister told lawmakers in Dublin.

"It is truly terrible to have such a serious and sad incidence take place at the beginning of a summer of adventure and opportunity for so many young people on J1 visas in the U.S."

Jerry Robinson, who lives near the apartment complex, told San Francisco news station KGO-TV that he had just gotten out of a movie when two hysterical people flagged down his car asking for a ride to a hospital to check on injured friends.

"They were friends of the people who were on the balcony. A couple of the women did not have shoes. One of the women had blood on her knees," he said.

The J-1 program allows foreign college students to spend up to four months living and working in the U.S. It was meant to foster cultural understanding but has become a booming, multimillion-dollar international business.

A 2010 Associated Press investigation found that many participants paid thousands of dollars to come to the U.S., only to learn the jobs they were promised didn't exist. Some had to share beds in crowded houses or filthy apartments.

The AP found that some of the sponsoring companies used unscrupulous third-party contractors to line up jobs and housing for the students.

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Following the AP's investigation, the State Department tightened its rules governing participating businesses.