A fifth-floor balcony at an apartment complex in downtown Berkeley collapsed early Tuesday morning, sending six Irish students to their deaths and injuring seven others critically.
The balcony, at Library Gardens, collapsed around 12:40 a.m. according to Officer Ethell Wilson, a spokesman for the Berkeley Police Department. Police had received a call about a loud party at that address, at 2020 Kittredge St., around midnight, he said. (Note: Initially authorities said the balcony was on the fourth floor, because it was on the fourth residential story in the building. They later reported the balcony was on the fifth story.)
As many as 13 people may have been on the balcony when it collapsed. Four were declared dead at the scene and one died later, according to Wilson. A sixth was reported dead shortly after 7:30 a.m. Seven others are in serious or critical condition at area hospitals, said Wilson.
The city of Berkeley has red tagged the three other balconies in the 9-year-old building as a safety precaution, according to Berkeley Police Officer Byron White. Berkeley has ordered the property owner to remove the damaged balcony and do a structural inspection of the other balconies within 48 hours.
As of about 10:30 a.m., the Alameda County coroner’s office said names of the deceased victims have not yet been released, but authorities plan to release additional information at 1 p.m. at a press conference at the Public Safety Building.
The balcony appears to have been constructed to hold 13 people at one time, so its collapse was probably caused by water damage, said Gene St. Onge, an Oakland civil and structural engineer who is basing his assessment on pictures he has seen of the balcony. “All water has to do is get in there and start seeping into the joint and into the wall,” said St. Onge. “In a short time it can rot the wood, which can give away.”
St. Onge said if bad waterproofing was the culprit, the responsibility may lie with the architect, who might not have detailed the balcony design correctly, or the contractor, who might not have installed it properly.
“This is a progressive thing,” said St. Onge. “It didn’t happen after one or two rains. This happened over time.”
Owen Buckley, an Irish student who lives in the building but was not at the party, said he heard a loud noise when the accident took place, but had not known what it was.
“We heard a massive wallop and lots of people scream,” he said. “We thought someone had been shot.”
Buckley estimates that about 50 Irish students with three-month visas live in the building. Many of them work at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, he said.
Buckley said one of the girls at the party is a fellow student of his at Dublin City University in Ireland, adding, “She’s in the hospital. I hope she’s OK.”
White, of the Berkeley Police Department, said the department gets “a lot of calls about noise,” adding, “Anytime you have a tragedy like this it’s distressing. Our heart just goes out to the families.”
The students were reportedly celebrating a 21st birthday.
Gerald Robbins was returning to his car after seeing a movie and saw that the balcony had collapsed. Robbins, 65, who lives in North Berkeley, told Berkeleyside he took some of the injured students to the hospital.
“I saw that the balcony fell and a bunch of kids were hurt,” said Robbins. “I took two injured kids to the hospital but, once we got there, there was no information about the others. One of the girls had blood on her knees and another had blood on his shirt and they had no idea of any fatalities. It was a 21st birthday party.”
The balcony “went down really fast. That balcony is literally upside down on the balcony below it. It must have just tossed them off. I know that there were two girls on the lower balcony.”
(Authorities said later on Tuesday that no one had been on the lower balcony, according to the preliminary investigation.)
It appears the fifth floor balcony snapped off and landed on the balcony directly below.
According to the Belfast Telegraph, there were “at least 40 young people” in the apartment during the party preceding the balcony collapse.
When police officers arrived on the scene to take witness statements, the unit adjacent to the balcony that collapsed was completely empty, according to scanner traffic reviewed by Berkeleyside. The incident drew a large number of bystanders to the area. When the call initially came in, it was reported that perhaps 10 people fell from a second- or third-floor balcony that had broken.
The dispatcher sent out a single truck and ambulance to the scene, but authorities quickly began calling for additional ambulances and paramedics to help with the response once it was determined that the balcony was on the fifth floor, and that there were four immediate fatalities.
The fire department called in a building inspector to examine the damage, and additional updates are expected from the city.
According to Reuters, thousands of students from Ireland come to the United States every summer on temporary working visas.
“My heart goes out to the families and loved ones of the deceased and those who have been injured,” Irish Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan told RTE, Ireland’s national broadcast station, as reported by Reuters.
Many of the students were working in companies around the area, including stores at Fisherman’s Wharf. One of the Irish students was supposed to start work today at the Claremont Resort and Spa.
Berkeleyside has been unable to reach the Irish consulate Tuesday, despite repeated efforts. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that approximately 750 Irish university students are in the Bay Area for the summer under the J-1 via program. Nationwide, there are about 6,000.
The first building in the Library Gardens complex was completed in November 2006, according to John DeClercq, the original developer. The second building was finished in 2007. The company that developed the complex, Library Gardens LLC, sold its interest in June 2007 to BlackRock, a real estate investment trust, he said.
The building is now owned by Granite Library Gardens LP, which is the third largest taxpayer in Berkeley, according to the Alameda County treasurer’s office, with assets of $66 million. It appears to be a subsidiary of BlackRock.
Greystar, a large apartment developer and manager, leases and manages the building. It does not own it.
The Houston-based developer and real-estate management company owns or manages more than 400,000 apartments around the country, including five apartment complexes it manages in Berkeley. Those include Library Gardens, Berkeley Central on Center Street, Hillside Village Apartments at 1797 Shattuck Ave. in the Gourmet Ghetto, and Telegraph Commons Apartments at 2490 Channing Way.
Greystar also manages The Varsity building at 2024 Durant Ave., which is scheduled to open in July. (See past Berkeleyside coverage of that project.)
Berkeleyside has tried unsuccessfully to reach anyone at Greystar.
DeClercq expressed shock and dismay Tuesday morning when contacted by Berkeleyside. He was at an affordable housing conference in Washington, D.C and had just heard about the balcony collapse and deaths less than a minute before.
“I am totally speechless and am really feeling for the families,” said DeClercq. “I am feeling terrible.”
DeClercq said a top-notch contractor built Library Gardens and used “the best steel guy in California.”
DeClercq couldn’t immediately remember the name of the contractor (he was in shock) but said the company was located in Point Richmond and used union labor.
“It was a reputable local general contractor. They hired the best steel and concrete subcontractors. It was a very strong team.”
A woman who has lived in Library Gardens for a year, who asked to be identified as Del, said students frequently throw parties in the apartment complex, which has two separate buildings with about 160 one- and two-bedroom units.
While there are a mix of tenants in the building (there are affordable units for low and middle income families) most of the occupants are students.
Greystar does not do a great job maintaining or cleaning the building and is lackadaisical about security, said Del. It contracts out janitorial services, which means mopping only gets done occasionally.
There is no regular security guard on site — at least none that Del has seen — although a maintenance person does live in the structure. Security is often slow to respond, she said. She once called in about an issue and didn’t hear back for 36 hours, she said.
“There is no all night security onsite to monitor occurrences such as the deaths that occurred,” Del said.
Berkeleyside updated this story as more information became available. Tracey Taylor, Lance Knobel, Emilie Raguso and Emily Dugdale contributed to this story.