herald

Monday 5 December 2016

Berkeley tragedy: Probe blames 'severe dry rot' in balcony and calls for rule changes

INVESTIGATION

Family and friends walk with the remains of Berkeley victim Eoghan Culligan arrive for his Funeral at The Church of the Annunciation, Rathfarnham, Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Family and friends walk with the remains of Berkeley victim Eoghan Culligan arrive for his Funeral at The Church of the Annunciation, Rathfarnham, Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

As five heartbroken Irish families bury their loved ones, officials in the US have vowed to make sure a similar tragedy never happens again.

US investigators have confirmed that a balcony from which six students fell to their deaths collapsed due to dry rot.

The preliminary findings of the investigation by the City of Berkeley in San Francisco confirmed, as suspected, that eight timber support beams on the fourth-storey balcony had massively deteriorated due to dry rot.

The Library Gardens apartment complex was only opened in 2007 and the timber beams should have been able to support a balcony weight of up to two tonnes.

However, it failed at 12.41am last Tuesday, throwing six students, five Irish and one American, to their deaths. Seven other students were badly injured.

The report, compiled by City of Berkeley engineers, confirmed that: "The deck joist ends protruding from the exterior wall appeared to be severely dry rotted."

The full report in the horrific accident at 2020 Kittredge Street will not be completed for several months.

The City of Berkeley has confirmed that, in light of the findings and the scale of the tragedy, new regulations will come into force.

Regulations

"Based on their observations, City staff will recommend that the City Council adopt new and modified regulations to enhance the safety of all current and future buildings in Berkeley," an official said.

"The changes would make new balconies and other sealed areas exposed to weather subject to stricter requirements on materials, inspection and ventilation.

In addition, the proposed regulations would institute regular maintenance inspections for all such spaces for future buildings as well as those units already built."

Meanwhile, the Herald can reveal that the construction firm which built the San Francisco complex has paid €24m ($26m) in lawsuit settlements over the past three years.

Segue Construction and a sub-contractor, R. Bros., are now co-operating with a City of Berkeley investigation into precisely what caused the tragedy.

The Herald has now learned that the $26m that Segue has paid out in lawsuit settlements include:

l Park Broadway complex, Millbrae - $3.5m paid in 2012.

l The Pines complex, San Jose - $14m was paid out in respect of two different apartment complex lawsuits in 2013.

l Cherry Orchard complex, Sunnyvale - $9m paid in 2012.

l Colma, San Francisco - a lawsuit is ongoing and unresolved.

The Sunnyvale settlement, linked to water damage, was the biggest single lawsuit though Segue later recovered $3m from the sub-contractor involved.

Segue has expressed its sympathy to the families of the students injured but insisted that the Berkeley incident was totally unconnected to claims that it had settled in San Jose and Millbrae.

"Our hearts go out to the families and loved ones of the young people who died or were injured in this tragic accident," a spokesperson said.

The firm insisted the Berkeley incident was "unique".

The new inspection requirements outlined by the City of Berkeley would apply to existing buildings and those units would be required to have maintenance inspections by qualified inspectors once every five years.

beams

Berkeley's ongoing investigation is now focused on why timber beams less than eight years old should have rotted so badly and failed so catastrophically.

The investigation is dealing with the waterproofing of the beams and whether the weather-sealant applied was damaged during installation or may have been somehow perforated.

The building owners, lease management company and builders are now co-operating with the City of Berkeley probe.

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