The Alameda County district attorney’s office is hoping to determine the source of water intrusion that led a fifth-floor balcony to collapse in Berkeley in June, killing six and injuring seven.
The tragedy at Library Gardens was an international story, due both to the number of victims who died or suffered serious injuries, and the fact that those impacted were young students from Ireland who were living in the Bay Area for the summer as part of a cultural exchange program.
DA’s office spokeswoman Teresa Drenick told Berkeleyside on Monday that investigators made progress “with a significant part of its investigation” last week.
Read complete coverage related to the balcony collapse.
Investigators erected scaffolding at the Library Gardens apartment complex, and retained a construction company to remove parts of the building for analysis.
In June, a fifth-floor balcony broke off the building and collapsed onto a fourth-floor balcony beneath it, causing more than a dozen young Irish students to plummet nearly 50 feet to the street below.
Four of the students were pronounced dead at the scene and two died later. They were Ashley Donohoe, 22, from Rohnert Park, who held dual American-Irish citizenship; and Olivia Burke, Eimear Walsh, Eoghan Culligan, Niccolai Schuster and Lorcán Miller, all 21 years old and from Ireland.
The city of Berkeley had both of those balconies removed from Library Gardens because they were deemed structurally unsafe.
The balconies, which had been stored in different locations in Alameda County, “were moved to a secure location so that the experts could view them side by side,” Drenick said.
Drenick said the DA’s office consulted with the California Contractors State License Board, the California Architect’s Board, and the California Board for Professional Engineers to identify experts in structural engineering, waterproofing and architecture “to investigate the condition of the balconies.”
Last week, experts retained by the district attorney’s office “completed destructive testing of the balconies to determine the process in which the balconies were constructed,” Drenick said.
Observers representing the victims’ families, the owner of Library Gardens, and construction and maintenance companies were permitted to observe the testing “to insure fairness for any future litigation.”
Drenick said, next, scientists at an independent laboratory will conduct a forensic analysis of all relevant materials.
“The experts hope to determine the source of the water intrusion that left the balcony in such an unsafe condition,” said Drenick in a prepared statement.
In the days the followed the balcony collapse, the city of Berkeley released a report that identified dry rot as the only contributing factor to the structural failure of the balcony, but the city said determining the reason for that failure was beyond the scope of its analysis.
District Attorney Nancy O’Malley announced in June that investigators from her office would be looking into the case to determine whether to file criminal charges.
O’Malley said at that time that, ultimately, if she believes criminal negligence can be proven, it could result in a charge of involuntary manslaughter.
“It must be aggravated, it must be culpable, it must be gross or reckless,” she said. “And it must be conduct that is such a departure from what would be the conduct of an ordinarily prudent person or careful person under the circumstances as to be incompatible with protecting life.”
Further, she said the evidence would have to show that the conduct was more than just ordinary carelessness, inattention or mistaken judgment.
O’Malley said she could not comment about the target of the criminal investigation, but said individuals who are part of an industry can be prosecuted.
She also noted that, when the investigation concludes, her office may determine the facts do not support criminal prosecution. She said civil charges are also under consideration, however.
“We don’t know what the evidence is going to show,” she said in June. “We go into this with all of our expertise, to make sure that we are looking at every single aspect of this case from every angle. But what I can assure everyone is that we will do the best that we can.”
Drenick said in June she did not know of any prior cases in Alameda County where someone had been prosecuted after a death due to a construction defect.
Read complete Berkeleyside coverage related to the balcony collapse.
DA launches criminal investigation into balcony collapse (06.25.15)
Do you rely on Berkeleyside for local news? Support independent journalism by becoming a Berkeleyside member for $10 a month or even less, or by making a one-time donation.