Berkeley balcony collapse: Families of students killed in tragedy fly to US as Ireland mourns

Investigations have started into how the balcony fell off an apartment building as they celebrated a 21st birthday during a summer trip to California

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Flags are flying at half-mast across Ireland today as the families of five students killed when the balcony they were standing on collapsed travel to California.

Olivia Burke, Eimear Walsh, Eoghan Culligan, Niccolai Schuster and Lorcan Miller, all aged 21, were at a birthday party in the university town of Berkeley when the tragedy happened yesterday.

A sixth victim, 22-year-old Ashley Donohoe, lived in California but had dual Irish-American citizenship and was Ms Burke’s cousin, Irish media reported.

They were among at least a dozen people standing on the fourth-floor balcony when it collapsed shortly after midnight local time, plunging them 40ft to the ground.

A 21-year-old woman whose birthday was being celebrated is believed to be in a critical condition in hospital, where six other people are being treated for their injuries.

Investigations have started into why the balcony fell from the Library Gardens apartment complex, which is popular with students at the University of California and visiting Irish people in the summer.

Photos after the collapse appeared to show rotten wood where it had broken off the outside of the building.

Investigations will examine if the cantilevered structure had been affected by dry rot or water damage and use of other balconies in the complex has been banned.

Investigators said the building code for 2007, when the property was completed, would have included a 60lbs-per-square-foot rule for the balcony, and with 13 people on the structure it may have been overloaded.

Photos from the scene showed it tipped onto the balcony below, with the pavement beneath covered in debris, clothing, shoes and red cups.Berkeley-Balcony5.jpg

Police said they received a noise complaint about an hour before the balcony collapsed but had not responded by the time of the tragedy at around 12.41am local time (8.41am BST) because of shooting elsewhere in the city.

The Irish students had only been in California for a few weeks, on J-1 visas for a cultural exchange programme that would have seen them working for three months and travelling for another.

It is considered a rite of passage for thousands of Irish students every year and around 700 are currently believed to be in the San Francisco Bay Area for the summer.

Tributes have been pouring in for those killed and injured in the accident, which has shocked Berkeley as well as Ireland.

Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan called it an “appalling loss of life for young people whose hopes and dreams of the future have suddenly and without notice been shattered".

Workmen examine the damage at the scene of the collapse in Berkeley on Tuesday

Three of the victims - Mr Miller, Mr Schuster and Ms Walsh - studied at University College Dublin and Mr Culligan also lived in the city.

The renowned Ballyboden St Endas Gaelic football club, which he played for since childhood, paid tribute.

"Eoghan was very popular with his team mates and this tragic news is keenly felt by all members of our Club, but especially by those players and mentors who knew him well," a statement said.

Marcus O'Halloran, University College Dublin student union president, said: ”I can't imagine the grief of the families and friends of those students involved. I can only extend my deepest sympathies and say that my heart goes out to them and all those affected by this catastrophe.

“This is a tragic loss, it affects the entire student community and all families in this country. I can only express my deepest condolences once again to all those affected.”

Neil Sands, president of a local Irish network, lays and Irish flag on wreaths left with tributes near the scene of the tragedy

A number of the students at the party were from Dublin and were also past pupils of St Mary's College in Rathmines, finishing their studies there in 2012.

The first relatives arrived on the US west coast overnight and others were leaving Ireland this morning.

Philip Grant, consul general with the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs in San Francisco, said the country was “frozen in shock”.

“We are a very close, tight-knit group,” he added. “Ireland is a small country and when you have the numbers that we had here today very few of us have been left untouched by this tragedy.”

Additional reporting by PA