The skies were cloudy when around 100 people gathered in Civic Center Park on Saturday to officially unveil a plaque honoring the six young lives that were lost when a balcony collapsed in downtown Berkeley in 2015. Mayor Jesse Arreguín and Ireland’s Ambassador to the United States, Daniel Mulhall, joined friends and families of the victims to mark the tragedy, which also caused seven other young people to be seriously injured. First responders, including Berkeley Fire Department Chief David Brannigan, also attended the ceremony.
Most of those who died were Irish students spending a summer in Berkeley, and many in the group, including a priest, Father Brendan McBride, had flown from Ireland to honor the dead. Ambassador Mulhall, who had traveled from Washington D.C., spoke of the “tragedy of the loss of those six young people at the beginning of their lives.”
The deaths occurred when a balcony at an apartment complex at 2020 Kittredge St. collapsed in June 2015.
Two of the fathers of the victims unveiled the plaque, which is in the southwest part of the park, and features the quote, “They lived and laughed and loved and left” from James Joyces’s Finnegans Wake. The plaque, created by the Berkeley Historical Plaque Project, also lists the names of all the victims, five of whom were Irish nationals and one of whom was Irish American. McBride gave a blessing. People placed flowers under a pair of strawberry trees that were planted in the park to honor the victims in October 2015.
Despite the somber reason for the gathering, speakers recognized the positive changes that resulted from the tragedy, and gave credit for them to the victims’ families. Mulhall praised the families for campaigning to change Berkeley building regulations “with the aim of seeking to insure that the terrible things that happened to their children won’t happen to other people.”
Arreguín assured the gathering that Berkeley had been made safer since the accident, and that “Berkeley’s legislation became an inspiration for legislation that is now state law to strengthen balcony standards throughout the entire state of California. We want to make sure that what happened could never happen again.” To date, he said, the balconies on more than 400 buildings in Berkeley have been found to be in need of repairs.
The tragedy happened when an Irish student who had come to Berkeley to work for the summer was celebrating her 21st birthday with friends in her apartment at what was then called Library Gardens, and has since been renamed K Street Flats. Thirteen people were on the balcony of the apartment when it sheared off the building. The six who died were Ashley Donohoe, 22, from Rohnert Park; and Olivia Burke, Eimear Walsh, Eoghan Culligan, Niccolai Schuster and Lorcán Miller, all 21 and from Ireland.
An investigation found the company that built the apartments, Segue Construction, at fault for using shoddy materials that rotted and weakened the structure. The state revoked the company’s license for a minimum of five years.
Last year, the victims’ families settled a lawsuit with the investment firm that owns the apartment complex, and the management company that runs it, for an amount said to be in the “multi-millions.” The families also reached a settlement with several of the contractors that built the complex.
After the ceremony on Saturday, those connected to the victims walked to City Hall for a reception. They talked among themselves and reminisced about those whose lives had been cut short so young.