Six Irish students now dead in US balcony collapse tragedy
Six Irish students have been killed following a balcony collapse in Berkeley, California.
Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan has confirmed that all five who died earlier today are Irish, and that the eight who suffered injuries - some of them life-threatening - are also all Irish.
It is thought that all the young people were attending a party at a building when a balcony on the fourth floor collapsed.
Minister Flanagan described the loss of life as "an appalling tragedy".
He also said that four died at the scene, and that the other two deaths were confirmed in hospital. There are now grave concerns for some of those injured.
Minister Flanagan said he didn't know if the victims were all male or female, adding that full details of tragedy are yet to emerge.
Police in the US five people died and eight others were wounded when the fourth-floor balcony of the building on Kittredge Street collapsed early today. It is understood that the US authorities have already been in contact with the families of some of the Irish victims to inform them of the tragedy.
It is understood that they are all aged between 20 and 22 years. It is understood that they are J1 students.
Speaking at a hastily arranged press conference in Government Buildings, Mr Flanagan said: "This is a terrible tragedy. It is with great sadness that I can confirm that following a tragic accident in Berkeley San Francisco, a few hours ago, five Irish Citizens have lost their lives."
He added: "This is a very challenging and difficult time for the families, for parents of those directly involved. It has been an appalling tragedy, an appalling loss of life."
"Young people with hopes and dreams for the future have suddenly been shattered," the minister said.
"There were a number of other students in the apartment, at what I understand it was a 21st birthday party, who are being treated in nearby hospitals," he added.
Anyone with concerns about friends or family in the Berkley region, should call the Emergency Consular Response Team on +353 1 418 0200— IrishForeignMinistry (@dfatirl) June 16, 2015
"A number of other students have been injured, seven, eight or nine. My understanding is that all of them are Irish," Mr Flanagan confirmed.
He said the department's consular services, headed by top official Philip Grant, is assisting those affected and is at the scene of the tragedy.
He said he had also spoken with US Ambassador to Ireland, Kevin O'Malley, who offered his condolences to the Irish people but also his assistance.
Mr Flanagan said he understood the victims were all J1 students but was not able to clarify how many of those who died were male or female.
He said he didn't have details of their identities or where they were from as the full details have yet to emerge.
Government sources have insisted that some of the victims' families have not yet been notified of the tragedy.
Mr Flanagan said the process of contacting the families is being done as quickly as possible and as soon as appropriate information is available.
The minister said he did not have any details as to he cause of the deaths, but that he understood it to be a "tragic accident."
Berkeley Police spokeswoman Jennifer Coats told NBC News the balcony fell to the sidewalk from the top of the four-story building shortly after midnight local time.
“There are four bodies on the sidewalk covered by a tarp,” Stephanie Chung of NBC Bay Area news said, a short time ago.
It is being reported that there was a large number of people at the party, and between 12 and 14 people may have been on the small balcony on the fourth floor.
The building is relatively new - dating from 2006.
The injured have been taken to a number of hospitals across the Bay Area: Highland in Oakland, Eden in Castro Valley and John Nuir in Walnut Creek.
A local reporter outside Highland Hospital, Oakland, told Newstalk that distraught friends have gathered outside.
“A dozen people, possibly friends or family, have gathered at hospital and they are distraught.”
James Mullaney (20), who lives in the same apartment block where the tragedy occurred, said he and his housemates woke up to the sound of sirens on the street.
He described the balconies in the apartments as “small enough”, and he said they might only hold a maximum of six people.
“We’re overlooking the street. We just heard a lot of noise. We were asleep and woke up with the noise of the sirens, there were emergency crews everywhere and tv crews.”
“Right now, there are police across the street and people setting up tv cameras. But the road is not closed.”
“As soon as I saw all the emergency services, I just texted my mother to say ‘in case you hear anything, I’m grand’. She knew as soon as I woke up that I was OK.”
Berkley is a popular area for J1 students since temporary summer work is widely available in the surrounding Bay area.
Law enforcement sources have confirmed to independent.ie a birthday celebration was taking place in the apartment when tragedy struck.
A number of agencies will be involved in the subsequent investigation into the incident which is now underway.
Berkeley Police Department, the Coroner's Office, and the Fire Department will investigate. The fire department will be bringing in structural engineers to look at the balcony.
One question which the authorities will be focusing on is how many people were on the balcony at the time of its collapse.
Coats said officers are still investigating what the people were doing on the structure at the time.
The building has apartments in the upper floors and retails shops at ground level.
President Michael D. Higgins said, “I have heard with the greatest sadness of the terrible loss of life of young Irish people and the critical injury of others in Berkeley, California today.
"My heart goes out to the families and loved one’s of all those involved. I have been informed of the consular assistance being provided to assist all of the families involved and I have asked to be kept informed as further details emerge."
US Ambassador to Ireland Kevin O’Malley said: “I would like to offer my heartfelt sympathy and condolence to the families, loved ones, and friends of the Irish students who lost their lives this morning in Berkeley California.
“All of us at the United States Embassy are greatly saddened by news of this tragic incident and are ready to do whatever we can to assist the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs at this difficult time. We will continue to coordinate as more details become available.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the families, loved ones, and friends at this difficult time.”
**Anyone with concerns about friends or family in the region should call the Emergency Consular Response Team on 01 4180200
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