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Irish leader visits California to honor balcony victims

October 29, 2015

BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) — The president of Ireland met with Berkeley’s mayor, public safety workers, health care providers and area residents on Wednesday to thank them for helping when a balcony snapped off an apartment building, killing six college students and injuring seven others.

President Michael Higgins called the balcony collapse that happened during a birthday party on June 16 “a tragedy that has affected our people very deeply.” Five of the young people who died were from Ireland and working in the San Francisco Bay area for the summer.

“We were told and witnessed from afar your quick and unwavering support for our students and their families,” Higgins told a group of first responders at a hotel two blocks away from where the balcony gave way.

Higgins and Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates shoveled dirt around a pair of strawberry tree saplings planted in honor of the victims in the corner of a downtown city park near the Library Gardens complex, the site of the accident.

Bates said the City Council on Tuesday gave final approval to more stringent construction and inspection rules for balconies and decks that were a response to the tragedy.

“This event is not going to go unnoticed. It’s not going to go down as a footnote in history,” Bates said. “We are going to change the way we do business in Berkeley so it never happens again.”

Five Irish students, all 21 years old, and the 22-year-old Irish-American cousin of one of them died after the balcony gave way, tossing them and another seven young people celebrating at the party 50 feet down to the street below.

A city investigation revealed that the wooden beams supporting the structure were rotted through from water damage. The Alameda County district attorney has been conducting an investigation to determine if criminal charges are warranted.

A number of other balconies or decks at risk of failing have been identified and required to undergo repairs by Jan. 14 since local officials ordered a review of all multi-unit buildings this summer, city spokesman Matthai Chakko said Wednesday.

Higgins, who was elected to a seven-year term in 2011, is nearing the middle of an eight-day West Coast visit that already has included a stop in Seattle, a visit to Google Inc.’s headquarters and a speech on world hunger at the University of California, Berkeley.

The type of evergreen tree selected for the planting ceremony was picked because it is native to both Ireland and California, Bates’ office said.

The students who died in the accident were Olivia Burke, Eoghan Colligan, Niccolai Schuster, Lorcán Miller, Niccolai Schuster, and Eimear Walsh, all from Dublin. The sixth, Ashley Donohoe, was from Northern California but had dual Irish-American citizenship. She and Burke were cousins.

Donohoe’s immediate family attended the ceremonies on Wednesday along with several cousins from Ireland who made the trip to honor both Donohoe and Burke.

Several of the seven Irish students injured in the collapse spent weeks undergoing surgeries and recuperating in the Bay Area, and the last to return to Ireland only left the U.S. last month.

Irish Consul-General Philip Grant said a few of them have gone back to their college studies. One, Clodagh Cogley, was paralyzed from the fall that severed her spinal cord, and another, Aoife Beary, suffered a severe head injury, Grant said.

Before the collapse, the Bay Area was the destination of choice for the destination of choice for a large share of the Irish students who come to the U.S. on summer work visas each year.

Grant said it’s too soon to know if the numbers will be down next year, but that he does not expect a change. If anything, he said, “the bonds between the people of Ireland and Berkeley are even stronger.”

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