BERKELEY, California — The families of five Irish students who were killed when a fourth-floor balcony gave way beneath their feet began arriving in California on Wednesday to collect the remains of their loved ones.
Meanwhile, authorities have begun an investigation into the disaster, which took place early Tuesday at the Library Gardens Apartments in Berkeley as the students attended a 21st birthday celebration.
Authorities will look at whether rotted wood led to the balcony’s failure, said Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates.
“It was speculation on my part about possible water damage to the wood supports for the balcony,” the mayor said. “That is not an official conclusion. I am not a structural engineer and am not qualified to make a judgment. We are still awaiting the outcome of the thorough investigation that is underway.”
In all, six people — all in their early 20s — died after the balcony apparently separated from the wall of the building and overturned on top of the balcony below.
The five Irish students who died have been identified as Olivia Burke, Eoghan Culligan, Niccolai Schuster, Lorcan Miller and Eimear Walsh. They were all 21 years old and were in the United States on short-term work visas.
The sixth victim, Ashley Donohoe, 22, had dual U.S.-Irish nationality and was from Rohnert Park, California. She was Olivia Burke’s cousin.
At least seven people were hospitalized Tuesday with serious injuries.
Ireland planned to fly flags over public buildings at half-staff on Wednesday to pay respect to the victims. A minute’s silence will be observed in the Irish Parliament.
University College Dublin, where some of those who died were students, opened an online book of condolences.
Heartbreak at Dublin university
“On behalf of the entire University community, I wish to extend our condolences to the families and friends of those who died and to those who were injured,” said University College Dublin President Andrew Deeks.
“We cannot comprehend the desperate shock and grief they are feeling and we are heartbroken at their suffering and loss.
“Our students, like thousands of others across Ireland, head to the U.S. each summer on J1 visas to enjoy the experience.
“It is heartbreaking to imagine that such a tragedy would strike these wonderful students when their lives are opening up to discover the world.”
He added that the University of California, Berkeley, had offered its counseling services to Irish students in the area.
A second book of condolences will be made available to sign in Dublin on Thursday.
Prayers for the injured
Two of the dead, Schuster and Culligan, were former students at St. Mary’s College, in Rathmines, Dublin, having graduated in 2012.
A notice on the college’s homepage read: “The thoughts and prayers of everybody in the St. Mary’s Community are with the families of Niccolai and Eoghan, and the other Irish youngsters who died or were injured in the heartbreaking accident in the United States yesterday.
“We also pray particularly for those being treated in hospital, and their families, many of whom are traveling today to the U.S.”
Irish Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan said a consular emergency line had received an “unprecedented volume” of calls Tuesday afternoon.
“This demonstrates that this is an incident that has touched many Irish families — not just those whose sons and daughters were actually there, but all families who have a loved one traveling this summer,” he said.
“Anyone with concerns about friends or family in the region should call the Emergency Consular Response Team on 353 1 418 0200.”