'The worst day of my life' - families try to come to terms with awful tragedy
"the worst day of my life." That was how George Donohoe, father of Ashley Donohoe who died in the Berkeley tragedy described hearing the horrific news yesterday.
Ashley, a talented Irish- American soccer star, died alongside five young Irish students when a balcony collapsed during a 21st birthday party.
George, from the Californian city of Rohnert Park, said his daughter Ashley was a fine, vibrant young woman and that he feels deeply for the families of the other victims who have also lost their children.
Grieving relatives have arrived in Berkeley, California, where at least seven other young people - all believed to be Irish - are being treated in hospital for serious injuries.
Five of the victims are from Dublin and aged 21. Some studied at UCD. They were last night named as Eimear Walsh, Olivia Burke, Lorcan Miller, Nick Schuster and Eoghan Culligan.
Clodagh Cogley (21), from Milltown, survived but suffered serious injuries. Her father, Niall Cogley, a former chief executive with Setanta Sports Ireland and former RTE head of sports, said it was a "miracle" his daughter was alive.
"I was speaking to her earlier," he said. "She seemed chirpy enough given what had happened to her, but I don't know how much of that was down to the medication she is on and putting a brave face on for us.
"We don't know the full extent of her injuries at the moment, we are just thankful she is alive."
Mr Cogley said the Psychology student had only been away for a few weeks after finishing her exams in Trinity College.
"From what I understand, there was a 21st and there was a bunch of them on a balcony either getting some air or dancing or whatever you do at a 21st," he said.
"Then it just fell from the sky and they all ended up on the street, half of them dead.
"It is a very small community of them over there and they were sticking together. Many had only finished exams in the last fortnight.
"People fell 40 feet. It's a tragedy. There are so many bereaved families," he added.
Police received a call at 12.45am local time (8.45am Irish time) after the fourth-floor balcony at the Library Gardens apartment complex on Kittredge Street collapsed and sent victims plunging to the street.
Further details of the tragedy emerged this morning.
The mother of another Irish student in the apartment at the time of the tragedy told how her daughter, who is a student nurse, was looking out a window in the apartment when she saw the balcony "just disappear".
"She raced out onto the street where she saw her friends lying badly injured on the ground, but as a nurse she knew not to move them," the woman said.
Witnesses also revealed how one student managed to escape death by diving back into the apartment from the balcony as it fell.
"This guy was just walking out onto the balcony when it began to give way. It collapsed under his feet, but he managed to jump inside," they said.
As emergency services responded, it became clear that additional ambulances and paramedics were needed to help with the major response effort.
Fire crews from several stations were also involved.
The victims were rushed to hospitals and trauma centres in the region, including Highland Hospital in Oakland, the Eden Medical Centre in Castro Valley and Sutter Alta Bates Summit Medical Centre.
Police received a noise complaint concerning a loud party in the apartment about an hour before the balcony collapsed, but had not responded, according to Byron White of the Berkeley Police Department.
The balcony, estimated to have been 5ft by 10ft, separated completely from the building and landed on the balcony below.
"What the first responders said is that it was quite disturbing," said Mr White. "Any time you have a tragedy like this, it's quite awful."
The broken balcony has been removed from where it fell. Yesterday, wooden beams and insulation were still visible below a set of French doors.
Gerald Robinson (65), of Berkeley, told the San Francisco Chronicle he was in his car when a young man and woman with blood on them flagged him down. He drove them to Highland Hospital in Oakland and stayed with them for about an hour.
"They were distraught. They were hanging on to each other for comfort," he said.
The two, both Irish, told Mr Robinson that the balcony had collapsed during a 21st birthday celebration for a friend.
"They were having a party - suddenly it went down," he said. "It came down really fast and just chucked everybody off."
Red cups and rubble littered the pavement underneath the balcony yesterday.
Jennifer Coats, a Berkeley police spokeswoman, said many of the wounded have critical, life-threatening injuries.
The cause of the collapse has not yet been established and investigations are continuing.
Mayor of Berkeley Tom Bates said "it was a dark, dark day".
Owen Buckley, an Irish student who lives in the building but was not at the party, said he heard a loud noise when the accident took place, but had not known what it was.
"We heard a massive wallop and lots of people screaming," he said.
Mr Buckley estimated that about 50 Irish students with J1 visas live in the building. Many of them work at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco.
The property, which consists of two buildings completed in 2006 and 2007, is owned by Granite Library Gardens LP and has an assessed value for tax purposes of $65.6m (€58.3m), according to public records.
On the Liberty Gardens website, the complex is described as the "premiere choice for convenient Berkeley apartments".
Units rent for $2,150 to $4,000 (€1,800 to €3,600) a month.
Berkeley is best known as the home of the University of California, one of the highest ranking universities in the US.
It is popular with Irish students travelling on the J1 visa programme that allows them to spend up to four months in the US. Some 8,000 applied for a visa this year.