International News

Hundreds grieve college students killed in balcony collapse

Mourners stand by during a candlelight vigil for six Irish students Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in Berkeley, Calif. The six Irish students died when a balcony collapsed during a party.  (AP Photo/Beck Diefenbach)

Mourners stand by during a candlelight vigil for six Irish students Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in Berkeley, Calif. The six Irish students died when a balcony collapsed during a party. (AP Photo/Beck Diefenbach)

BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) — Hundreds attended a Mass for victims of the deadly Berkeley balcony collapse, with a Catholic priest calling on people to offer support for the families of the six young people killed and seven injured.

The Rev. Aidan McAleenan said Wednesday evening at Oakland’s Cathedral that families are focusing now on their loved ones rather than why the crowded fifth-floor balcony broke off an apartment building during a 21st birthday party held by visiting Irish college students.

“We may well wonder and want to lash out and talk about the balcony and who built it,” said McAleenan, who rushed to hospitals after hearing of the disaster Tuesday that sent 13 people tumbling 50 feet. “But at the end of the day, what (families) want the most is to see their loved ones. They want to touch them, they want to hold them and they want to kiss them.”

Some families arrived from Ireland, but none of them apparently attended the Mass, which drew some 300 people from around the San Francisco Bay Area. A candlelight vigil also honored the victims Wednesday night.

Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates said rotted wooden beams appeared to have caused the collapse, but then called the theory “speculation” on his part. He said there has been no official conclusion that the wood was not sealed properly at the time of construction, leading to water damage, and investigators are still working.

Bates said it was “obviously a bad idea” for 13 people to crowd onto such a small balcony — it was about 40 square feet — but he was not blaming the victims.

Building inspectors have determined that another balcony at the Library Gardens apartment complex was “structurally unsafe and presented a collapse hazard.” They ordered it demolished.

Two other balconies were declared off-limits at the apartments, which were completed in 2007 and are popular among visiting students and those at the nearby University of California, Berkeley.

Segue Construction, Library Gardens’ general contractor, has faced two lawsuits in recent years involving allegations of dry rot and substandard balconies at condo and apartment projects in the Bay Area. Among other things, Segue was accused of improperly waterproofing balconies.

Both cases were settled in 2013, with Segue, developers and other parties agreeing to pay millions of dollars. Company spokesman Sam Singer said such litigation is common on large projects and “has no bearing on the tragedy” in Berkeley.

“They are completely different projects. They are completely different types of balconies,” he said.

Singer said of the balcony collapse: “Segue Construction has never had an incident like this in its history.”

A spokeswoman for the apartments’ property management firm, Greystar, had no comment.

Across the Atlantic, flags flew at half-staff around Ireland and the country’s parliament suspended normal business as the nation mourned the dead: Ashley Donohoe, 22, of Rohnert Park, California, and Olivia Burke, Eoghan Culligan, Niccolai Schuster, Lorcan Miller and Eimear Walsh, all 21-year-olds from Ireland.

“They were in the prime of their lives,” said Bernadette Prendiville, principal of the high school from which Burke and Walsh graduated. “They had a successful time in school, went about their work quietly and had everything going for them, everything ahead of them.”

The Irish students were working and traveling in the U.S. over the summer, a rite of passage for thousands of their countrymen.

“For many of my countrymen, this is a favorite experience, and to have this happen at the start of the season has left us frozen in shock,” said Philip Grant, Ireland’s San Francisco-based consul general.

Meanwhile, the president of the Structural Engineers Association of Northern California said he noticed the broken wooden beams under the balcony crumbled in the hands of investigating engineers.

“That wood was decayed or had some serious deterioration to the point where they could touch it with their hands and it was coming off in chunks in their hands,” Darrick Hom said after visiting the site.

He said it was surprising to see such deterioration in a building just 8 years old. Normally, any building material — wood, steel or concrete — that will be exposed to the elements requires weatherproofing at the time of construction, Hom said.

Nothing in state code requires follow-up inspections of balconies after a building is issued a certificate of occupancy, unless there is major remodeling, said Brian Ferguson, deputy director of the state Department of General Services.

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Associated Press writers Kristin Bender, Paul Elias, Ellen Knickmeyer, Janie Har and Terry Chea in San Francisco, and Danica Kirka in London contributed to this report.

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