Berkeley tragedy: A sadder homecoming could never have been imagined
A sadder homecoming could never have been imagined as the remains of four of the students killed in the balcony collapse in Berkeley, California arrived back on Irish soil.
Just a few scant weeks ago, their families had waved them off on the adventure of a lifetime.
Yesterday, those same families were back at Dublin airport again, this time carrying a burden of unbearable sorrow as they brought home the remains of their loved ones, in the most unimaginably tragic circumstances.
The coffins that held the remains of Niccolai Schuster, Lorcan Miller, Eoghan Culligan and Eimear Walsh were brought home, accompanied by their grieving relatives, on board Aer Lingus flight EI 146, direct from San Francisco.
In a fitting coincidence, the plane was named for St Columba - also the name of the church in Oakland, California, where a joint service was held before the remains left for Ireland.
Olivia Burke's family will return to Ireland with her remains today. Due to land at 11.35am, the flight touched down early yesterday, at 11.07am.
Father Des Doyle, chaplain of the Dublin Airport church was on hand to preside over a short prayer service shortly after arrival.
A group of around a dozen young students - friends of the deceased - had gathered at the Collinstown suite in Dublin airport in a sign of respect and support.
A garda escort then led a cortege of three hearses, from Dublin airport onto the M50, with gardai in black gloves directing traffic. In a deeply poignant and dignified tribute, gardai posted at roundabouts saluted the remains as they passed.
There was a delay before the hearse containing the coffin of Niccolai Schuster set off from the airport shortly after 12.30pm, accompanied by four garda outriders, with the remains again solemnly saluted by gardai along the route.
In a moving statement issued before they departed for Ireland, the families thanked the students who were in the apartment and apartment complex that fatal night.
"The manner and speed at which they reached out to our families, to our Consul, and to each other was faultless," they said.
"Our children were extraordinarily blessed in their friends and we are enormously proud of them.
"As we leave Berkeley and return home with our beloved sons and daughters we would like to thank everyone in America and Ireland for their sympathy and support, which has been a tremendous comfort to us at this tragic time.
"In addition we are forever grateful to the Irish Consul, Philip Grant, and his team, and also the amazing service and support received from Aer Lingus, US Ambassador Anne Anderson, and a special appreciation to Minister Deenihan."
The relations are praying for the recovery of those left with serious injuries from the fall.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with the Donohue family and Ashley, who was laid to rest in Sonoma, and with Aoife, Clodagh, Connor, Hannah, Jack, Sean and Niall who remain in hospital and with their families, we wish them a speedy recovery," they said.