Nine days after the fifth-floor balcony collapse that killed six students and injured seven in Berkeley, Berkeleyside sat down with Philip Grant, consul general of Ireland for the Western United States, at the Irish Consulate in San Francisco to review the response, both local and international, to the tragedy. Grant also discussed the status of the students who survived.
Grant has been intimately involved in the aftermath of the June 16 accident from the get-go: co-hosting a press conference with the city of Berkeley 12 hours after it happened and liaising closely with the families of victims, as well as the media. Thursday, he appeared tired from the intensity of the last week and a half, and his work continues; during the interview, he excused himself once to take a brief phone call, and kept his phone out throughout the discussion in case of urgent updates.
Read complete balcony collapse coverage on Berkeleyside.
Speaking Thursday, Grant said he had been hugely impressed with the spirit and resilience of the J-1 student community in the Bay Area (five of the six who died were on J-1 work-study cultural visas). The program has been described as a right of passage and chance to experience America for many Irish students. Grant praised the compassion of the local medical teams who cared for the students, from the moment first responders reached the site, as well as those who offered aid to the survivors in the hospital.
Six young people died in last week’s tragedy: Ashley Donohoe, 22, from Rohnert Park; and Olivia Burke, Eimear Walsh, Eoghan Culligan, Niccolai Schuster and Lorcán Miller, all 21 years old and from Ireland. The funerals for all six have since taken place. Grant offered updates on the seven survivors Thursday.
Two students, Sean Fahey and Conor Flynn, have been released from the hospital. Fahey has returned to Ireland, while Flynn remains in Walnut Creek to be “monitored,” Grant said. None of the other injured students will be returning to Ireland for at least three weeks, he said, because of the protocols surrounding their various injuries, specifically lung injuries. After puncturing or collapsing a lung, an injured person cannot fly on an airplane until fully recovered.
At John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek, where Jack Halpin remains in care, hospital staff have set aside two rooms to provide a “base camp” for friends to stay overnight.
“Courtesy is even too weak a word,” Grant said, calling the actions of the medical team “phenomenal.” “They couldn’t have facilitated that other element of recovery of the guys more.”
Clodagh Cogley has transferred hospitals and will be receiving care in Santa Clara. She posted a public update on her Facebook page Wednesday morning, describing her physical condition and mental state. She said she suffered two collapsed lungs, a broken shoulder, a broken knee and five broken ribs, and that her spinal cord is broken — “meaning the chances of me using my legs again are pretty bleak.”
Despite this diagnosis, Cogley’s tone was optimistic. She wrote that she intends to put “everything [she’s] got” into physical therapy, and was enthusiastic about the possibility of dog therapy at her new treatment center.
“The thing I’m taking from this tragedy is that life is short and I intend to honour those who died by living the happiest and most fulfilling life possible,” Cogley wrote. “Enjoy a good dance and the feeling of grass beneath your feet like it’s the last time because in this crazy world you never know when it might be.”
“She’s inspiring,” Grant said of Cogley. “She has a life that she wants to live and she’s going to celebrate that life because she knows that’s what her friends want her to do.”
Hannah Waters and Aoife Beary, both at Highland Hospital in Oakland, are in the ICU and “have been described as critical by the hospital,” Grant said, while Niall Murray is in stable condition at Eden Medical Center in Castro Valley. For all of the students, the next steps in treatment are unclear.
“It is the nature of these things and the nature of these injuries, particularly where there is head trauma, that you might not know for weeks,” he said. “You do not survive falls like this and not have a complicated set of injuries.”
The fall from the fifth-floor balcony at Library Gardens plunged the students nearly 50 feet to the street below, according to the coroner’s report released last week.
Despite a focus by the media on hospital discharges and repatriation dates, those should not be the main points of attention as the survivors begin to heal, Grant said.
“At the end of the day, that’s not where we are,” he said. “Where we are is on a journey. The point is maximum recovery possible, and we will pass these waypoints on the way, but they’re not the targets.”
The target, Grant said, is a “continuum of care.” If the best resources to care for the students’ physical and emotional recoveries are not available in Ireland, then the best course of action would be for them to stay in the Bay Area. He also spoke of the survivors as a unit.
“At the end of this, they’re a team,” he said, adding that each student is leaning on the others to get through their recovery.
Grant spoke highly of the “depth of support” the survivors are receiving, which he has seen firsthand, and the facilitation of travel and shelter for the families of the students.
“The parents cannot speak more highly of the quality of care that they [the students] are getting, and the compassion and support that they’re getting from the medical teams,” he said.
The Berkeley fire and police departments have been amazing as well, Grant said.
“They made the impossible possible in terms of our response, and they’re still making the impossible possible in terms of the support they’re giving the families,” he said.
(Berkeley Fire Chief Gil Dong has spoken of how shaken some of the first responders were by handling what he described as the worst multi-casualty events he could recall in his time in Berkeley.)
The support network that has sprung up around the tragedy extends beyond professional agencies, and includes the hundreds of J-1 students who are in the Bay Area, the wider Bay Area community, hotels, airlines and more. Grant spoke in particular about the help that Aer Lingus has given to the families traveling to California by covering much of the cost of travel and ensuring that families could fly together.
The Irish J-1 Berkeley Tragedy Fund, a crowd-sourcing campaign launched on the day of the collapse, has raised more than $238,000 so far for the “daily needs” of the families and friends that would not be covered by insurance, Grant said. Aer Lingus has helped with the travel of the immediate families to California, while other families of students who were not injured in the collapse but were “traumatized” by the tragedy have flown to Berkeley and needed support, he said.
Despite many members of the community offering lodging in their homes, Grant emphasized the need for longer-term housing situations that don’t depend solely on volunteers.
Additionally, “the idea of the J-1 program is you come out here and you find a summer job, you’re self-supporting,” Grant said, but the friends of the injured students are not “able to do any of that because they’re staying with their friends.”
“They’re doing the most important job they could possibly be doing right now,” he said. Part of the J-1 Tragedy Fund is going toward ensuring that the survivors’ network of friends are themselves being supported.
In future, the consulate may create a general fund for emergencies such as this one, Grant said. There have been “small cases” in years past, he said, but nothing to the scale of the collapse. A fund with a clear set of boundaries and transparency guidelines would help ease the time between the accident and when insurance claims begin to take effect. The donations that have been streaming in since the day of the accident have taken that role in this event, but to have a system already in place in case of future emergencies would ease the consulate’s work tremendously.
“You want to make sure that it’s all proper,” Grant said.
Grant credited the wider J-1 community with responding to the tragedy in a way that has been smoother than he could have imagined, he said.
“What they did from the moment the accident happened right up until today has been faultless,” Grant said. “They stayed with their friends when they were on the ground, they got the names [of the injured], they found out what hospitals they were going to, they went to the hospitals, they stayed at the hospitals until they heard how their friends were doing, they fed back that information” to the consulate and to families, which meant that “families were able to get out here much much earlier.”
“You never want to be in a position where you tell a parent the wrong information,” Grant continued. The night of the accident was “a jigsaw puzzle” of information, with “hundreds of parents ringing their children to see how they were, and most of their children were sound asleep.” With the information that the J-1 students gathered and passed on to the consulate, “I had all the names” of the 13 on the balcony and where they were, he said. “It was the students working with the hospitals who were able to bring the bits of the puzzle together.”
Overall, when he looked back at the aftermath of the tragedy, Grant said that the response by the J-1 community and students in the program is a source of great pride.
“There have been some very harsh newspaper articles almost suggesting that the J-1 program has become an embarrassment, and it couldn’t be further from the truth,” Grant said, referencing a New York Times article, published on the day of the accident, that garnered widespread criticism.
“What this tragedy has shown is how enormously proud [we] are of what they’ve done and how they’ve handled themselves. They’re part of the fabric of San Francisco in the summer,” Grant said, adding, “if I go downstairs, that’s who I’m buying my burrito off.”
Grant did not comment on the city’s investigation or the court proceedings that could follow the tragedy. The Alameda County district attorney’s office announced this week that it had launched a criminal investigation into the balcony collapse. The consulate has contacts with the city of Berkeley and with the district attorney, Grant said, but that is not the consulate’s focus at this point.
“We still have funerals going on in Ireland,” he said. The most important thing at this stage is “giving parents the space they need.”
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Eden Teller, a junior at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, is a Berkeleyside summer intern. She is majoring in media and cultural studies and minoring in geology.