One year ago today, Berkeley woke up to the horrifying news that a balcony holding 13 people had sheared off the face of Library Gardens, an apartment building in downtown Berkeley, sending six people in their 20s to their deaths.
News of the tragedy rippled through the world, as most of those killed were young Irish students who had come to the Bay Area on J-1 visas for the summer. Families who had sent their children off for three months of fun, work and American culture boarded transcontinental flights with heavy hearts to bring their children’s bodies home.
From the earliest hours of the tragedy, questions arose about why the balcony had fallen off. Library Gardens at 2020 Kittredge St. had only been built nine years earlier. When reached by phone shortly after the calamity, John DeClercq, one of building’s original developers insisted to Berkeleyside that top-notch contractors and materials had been used.
But clearly something had gone wrong. The city of Berkeley conducted an investigation and concluded that the wooden beams holding up the balcony had rotted. The beams had not been properly waterproofed during construction, allowing water to eat away at the fibers.
That information prompted Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley to launch a criminal investigation into the balcony construction. Was there any willful negligence on the part of the developer, contractor, or apartment management company? After an eight-month long investigation, O’Malley concluded that there was no evidence of criminality. None of those involved “had acted with gross or reckless conduct akin to a disregard for human life.”
An investigation by the California State License Board (CSLB) did find that five contractors involved in the Library Gardens balcony collapse were in “probable violation of law,” because they deviated from normal building standards. The five companies under investigation are the general contractor, Segue Construction, framing contractor Etter & Sons, waterproofing contractor R. Brothers Waterproofing, plastering contractor Northstate Plastering, and flashing contractor The Energy Store of California. None are Berkeley-based. The most serious penalty for these companies would be a revocation of their licenses.
The California Architects Board, a state board, is also investigating if the design played any role in the collapse, according to the Mercury News. Berkeley staff also raised questions about the design of the balcony a week after the tragedy.
So now the courts will decide the issue. The families of those who died, as well as those who were seriously injured, have filed civil lawsuits, 14 in all, against a long list of people who contributed to the construction of the Library Gardens complex. The cases are still in their early stages and will likely take years to resolve. But some shocking charges have already emerged, such as the contention that the balcony supports were so water-logged that mushrooms grew on the surface.
Some positive things happened after the tragedy. The harrowing death of so many in their 20s strengthened the bond between Ireland and Berkeley, for example. The firefighters and police officers who rushed to the gruesome scene, as well as staffers who assisted the families, have formed deep relationships with people in Ireland. The Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade invited a number of the first responders to march in a Dublin St. Patrick’s parade in March. They are regularly interviewed by the Irish press, and have been honored and thanked many times over.
The president of Ireland, Michael Higgins, came to Berkeley in October and, along with Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, planted two trees in Civic Center Park to as a symbol of the connection that has grown between Berkeley and Ireland in the months that followed the tragedy. The trees were also meant as a memorial to those who died.
There have been legislative changes as well. The city of Berkeley passed a law requiring regular and more frequent inspections of balconies. City inspections of all-weather-exposed exterior elements in properties with at least three units revealed that 402 buildings needed work. (Library Gardens removed all the balconies from its building.)
Berkeley also adopted new requirements for the way structures are built. Now new buildings must use more moisture-resistant materials on decks, balconies, and staircases and those features must be ventilated. The buildings must also be built with a way for inspectors to access the spaces for inspection.
State Senators Loni Hancock and Jerry Hill have introduced a bill requiring building contractors to report lawsuit settlements to the state. Its introduction was prompted by the revelation that Segue Construction, the main contractor on Library Gardens, had paid close to $29 million in legal settlements relating to water intrusion issues before the collapse. The bill is still making its way through various committees.
People around the world are commemorating the tragedy. The U.S. Ambassador to Ireland, Kevin F. O’Malley, unveiled a stone marker remembering those lost in the tragedy at a ceremony in Dublin on Wednesday. An apple tree was also planted in the victims’ honor. We “extend our heartfelt sympathies to the families, friends, and loved ones of the students who lost their lives or were injured,” O’Malley said, according to the Irish Times. “As the tree grows strong, we will take comfort in the knowledge that the memory of Ashley, Eimear, Eoghan, Lorcan, Niccolai, and Olivia, will remain with us always,” he said.
Five Irish students — Olivia Burke, Eoghan Culligan, Nick Schuster, Lorcan Miller and Eimear Walsh, all aged 21 — died in the tragedy, as did Ashley Donohoe, 22, who lived in Rohnert Park and was a cousin of Burke’s.
Another seven Irish students — Aoife Beary, Clodagh Cogley, Sean Fahey, Conor Flynn, Jack Halpin, Niall Murray and Hannah Waters — suffered serious injuries.