Irish President Honors First Responders in Berkeley Balcony Collapse

The president of Ireland Michael Higgins honors the first responders in the June 16 Berkeley balcony collapse.  (Fennell Photography Ltd)

Berkeley police officers and firefighters lined up on either side of a hotel ballroom in dress uniform Wednesday afternoon.

They awaited their moment of intentional eye contact, a firm handshake and a thank you from Irish President Michael Higgins, as he honored those who were first on the scene of the Berkeley balcony collapse on June 16.

It’s been more than four months since the tragedy killed six and seriously injured seven Irish citizens. Most had been students working in the Bay Area under a cultural exchange program for the summer.

They were celebrating a friend’s 21st birthday when their fifth-floor balcony collapsed on the one beneath it -- dropping them almost 50 feet to street level. The calls came to the Berkeley Police Department after midnight. Later investigations revealed the balcony’s wooden frame had extensive dry rot.

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But Higgins’ speech yesterday focused on the healing since the tragedy. He thanked those who were first on the scene, and those who have helped support the victims’ families.

“The motto of Berkeley is ‘Fiat Lux’ – ‘Let there be light.’ I see gathered here the custodians of that light and the keepers of that beacon -- the police, the firefighters, the medical teams, the volunteers, the people of Berkeley and their neighbors.”

Higgins spoke to the ability of strangers to become a tight-knit community when most needed, quoting the Irish proverb: Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine.

“Literally, it means that we all live in each other's shadows, and it refers to our interdependence and the impact of our actions on each other," he said.

Higgins said the past months have allowed him to see this in Berkeley.

“In the blink of an eye, these young, talented and bright students, most of whom were thousands of miles from home, and their families and friends suddenly needed the compassion and intensive support of strangers," he said. "You did not fail them.”

Officer Jitendra Singh of the Berkeley Police Department was among the officers honored at the Hotel Shattuck reception. He was the second person on the scene that night, and a member of the response center created at the department to deal with the aftermath.

He said he was proud of the department’s work on the tragedy these past months, and was touched by the Irish community’s appreciation of their efforts -- noting it was a welcome change from recent negativity toward police officers.

Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates also spoke at the reception. He said the balcony collapse has sparked several housing safety proposals to prevent similar tragedies from happening again.

Bates was referring to several changes to the city’s housing code since July, including stricter regulations on what materials can be used for the exterior structures of a building and regular safety inspections. The city has even called upon the California Building Standards Commission to make the regulations statewide.

Further amendments to Berkeley’s housing code are currently under review, including higher inspection fees and penalties, and stricter enforcement of annual property inspections and safety reports by the owners themselves.

Following the ceremony, Bates and Higgins retreated to the nearby Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park for a tree-planting ceremony to remember the victims of the balcony collapse and symbolize the growing friendship between Berkeley and Ireland—albeit under tragic circumstances.

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This was Higgins’ first visit to California as president of Ireland.

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