‘Severely dry rotted’ timber found after Berkeley balcony collapse; city plans to stiffen safety rules

Remnants of beams from removed balconies show contrast between the condition of the wood from the collapsed balcony and the balcony it fell upon at the Library Gardens Apartments, in Berkeley, on Thursday, June 18, 2015. Six people died and seven were seriously injured in the early Tuesday morning accident. Photo: David Yee ©2015
Both of these balconies, which showed evidence of dry rot, were removed from Library Gardens last week. Photo: David Yee

Update, June 24, 1 p.m. Teresa Drenick, spokeswoman for the Alameda County district attorney’s office, confirmed Wednesday that the office will be taking a look at the balcony collapse.

“The District Attorney’s Office is reaching out to the city of Berkeley and our office will begin looking at this matter,” Drenick said Wednesday by email. “I have no further details at this point in time.”

Berkeleyside will continue to follow the story.

Original story, June 23, 12:06 p.m. One week after a balcony collapsed at a downtown Berkeley apartment building, killing six and injuring seven, the city says “severely dry rotted” timber contributed to the tragedy.


The city of Berkeley found rotting timber in two balconies, and had both of them removed last week. The two other balconies at the complex showed no signs of decay, and were allowed to remain in place.

Tuesday morning, the city released the findings of its investigation into the June 16 accident at Library Gardens, at 2020 Kittredge St., that caused a fifth-floor balcony to break off the apartment building during a birthday celebration, sending 13 people to the ground nearly 50 feet below.

Read complete balcony collapse coverage on Berkeleyside.

“Among other observations, City inspectors noted that the deck joist ends protruding from the exterior wall appeared to be severely dry rotted,” the city said in a prepared statement.

City staff said that, as a result of the accident, the Berkeley City Council will now consider the adoption of new and modified regulations to improve safety in multifamily buildings throughout the city.

“The changes would make new balconies and other sealed areas exposed to weather subject to stricter requirements on materials, inspection and ventilation. In addition, the proposed regulations would institute regular maintenance inspections for all such spaces for future buildings as well as those units already built,” the city said.

If council approves them, the new inspection rules would apply to existing buildings, and would require inspections of all such spaces within six months of the passage of the proposed ordinances. In addition, those units would be required to be assessed every five years by qualified inspectors.

According to the city, Building and Safety Division staff confirmed that the approved plans for Library Gardens complied with the state building code requirements, and that all building code-mandated inspections were conducted before the property was granted its certificate of occupancy in 2007.

See the full memo from the city.

City staff spent extensive time at Library Gardens last week to assess the damage and the property to learn what they could about the accident and ensure no other safety concerns were present.

Inspectors noted that, on the fifth-floor balcony, “the cantilevered balcony joists had completely sheared off approximately 16-20 inches from the exterior building face.” A torn waterproofing membrane, made of Bituthene, hung over the joist ends.

The joist ends looked to be severely dry rotted, according to the city.

A balcony at Library Gardens in downtown Berkeley collapsed Tuesday, killing six. Photo: David Yee
A balcony at Library Gardens in downtown Berkeley collapsed last Tuesday, killing six. Photo: David Yee

Inspectors then went to the unit below, so they could look at the balcony itself, which had flipped 180 degrees and landed on the guardrail of the balcony for the fourth-floor unit. From there, they could see “apparently rotted debris” from the upper balcony that had landed on the lower one. They sealed off the balcony for safety, and left the scene by 6:30 a.m. to provide a briefing to the city manager by 8 a.m.

City staff remained on site throughout the day last Tuesday. A city building inspector who looked at the protruding timber left when the fifth-floor balcony collapsed said it “appeared to be extensively rotted at the failure points,” according to the report.

Inspectors looking at the fourth-floor balcony found that it, too, “appeared to be dry rotted at the exposed locations potentially presenting a danger” of collapse. It was declared a hazard and the city ordered property owner Greystar to remove it within 24 hours.

The next day, a city inspector took a closer look at that balcony and found “significant rot and decay to the outer support joist,” though the more central joists appeared less damaged, according to the report.

The next day, Thursday, the city inspected the two other balconies at Library Gardens and found that they did not use the cantilevered framing that had been used in the other balconies. The city found “no signs of distress or water damage” in either of those balconies.

According to the city, “Forensic examination and laboratory tests are outside the scope of this review.”

The city has not said when council is expected to consider the new building rules.

A fund has been established: the Irish J1 Berkeley Tragedy Fund, by the Irish Immigration Pastoral Center, to support the families of the dead and injured. As of publication time, nearly 2,000 people had contributed to the fund, raising more than $200,000.

Update, 2:30 p.m. City staff held a press conference shortly after 2 p.m. to answer questions related to Tuesday’s memo and the conclusion of the city’s investigation into last week’s balcony collapse.

Berkeley planning director Eric Angstadt said he hopes to present his proposal for the new regulations to council July 14.

Angstadt said, if council adopts the proposal — which will be what he recommends — the new rules could go into effect immediately pending state approval. The state does need to sign off on the new rules before they can be put in place in Berkeley.

The city does not plan to do any additional analysis of the materials from the balcony collapse, but Angstadt said staff may investigate whether Segue Construction Inc., which built Library Gardens, also built other properties in Berkeley. He said the city would “probably check” to learn what Segue has built in Berkeley and consider whether other properties should be inspected.

Under the current proposal for new regulations, property owners would be required to hire their own structural engineers or experts to carry out the new five-year inspections.

The new proposal seeks to address the issue of water or moisture intrusion, “however it happens,” Angstadt said, “to minimize the chance of this happening again.”

“We don’t know how it got in,” he said, of the dry rot identified at Library Gardens, adding that the new proposal seeks to prevent the advance of dry rot in multifamily properties in the city.

He said the city’s investigation is complete, and identified no other contributing factors in addition to dry rot that might have led to last week’s balcony collapse. He said he did not believe weight had been a factor in the collapse because, according to the plans, the balcony had been designed to hold the load required by the building code.

Angstadt said he did not know how many buildings in the city would be impacted by the new rules, and declined to estimate the number.

City spokesman Matthai Chakko said the city has not launched a criminal investigation related to the balcony collapse.

Update, 3 p.m. According to Raidió Teilifís Éireann, one of the young men injured in last week’s balcony collapse, Sean Fahey, is now well enough to be preparing to return home to Ireland.

The rest of the victims who were injured, all of whom are Irish, “are reported to be making improvements,” though they remain in the hospital.

Aoife Beary and Hannah Waters are still in “critical condition but are showing signs of improvement” at Highland Hospital in Oakland.

Niall Murray and Clodagh Cogley remain at Eden Medical Center in Castro Valley and “are also reported to be doing well despite their serious injuries,” RTE reported.

Jack Halpin and Conor Flynn are reported to be in fair condition at the John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek, according to RTE.

The news organization also reported on the funerals in Ireland of two of the people who died last week, Eoghan Culligan and Eimear Walsh, which hundreds of people are said to have attended. The funerals for Olivia Burke and Niccolai Schuster are scheduled for Wednesday, and Lorcán Miller is slated to be buried Thursday. All five were 21.

A funeral for Burke and her cousin, Ashley Donohoe, a 22-year-old Irish-American woman from Rohnert Park, was held over the weekend in Sonoma, according to the BBC.

Related:
Church services held for balcony collapse victims (06.20.15)
Protesters demand halt on new construction in Berkeley (06.19.15)
No ‘smoking gun’ in Berkeley balcony design (06.19.15)
As students recover in hospitals, support grows for survivors, victims of balcony collapse (06.18.15)
Coroner releases autopsy results on balcony victims; first responders sought help for stress (06.18.15)
City posts documents from balcony collapse property (06.18.15)
People gather to remember victims of Berkeley balcony collapse (06.18.15)
Firm that built Berkeley complex has been fined, sued (06.18.15)
Support springs up for families, friends of deceased (06.17.15)
As Berkeley orders removal of second balcony, questions over quality of construction (06.17.15)
Berkeley building under scrutiny before balcony collapse (06.17.15)
Mayor, consul general, lay wreaths to honor 6 killed in Berkeley balcony collapse (06.16.15)
Six who died in Berkeley: Young students in their prime (06.16.15)
Six students killed in Berkeley balcony collapse identified (06.16.15)
Berkeley orders balcony removal after tragedy kills 6 (06.16.15)
Berkeley balcony collapse leaves 6 students dead (06.16.15)

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