A bizarre and tragic twist of fate linked Jimmy Deenihan, Minister for the Diaspora, and John Schuster, father of Niccolai Schuster, one of six Irish students who died in the Berkeley apartment disaster on Tuesday.
Just two weeks ago, Minister Deenihan was in conversation with Mr Schuster during Listowel Writer’s Week, and mention was made of Niccolai being out in the USA on a J1 Visa.
It was beyond the worst nightmares of the two men that last night Minister Deenihan should be standing beside a picture of Niccolai, 21, which was placed in a huge shrine of flowers, Irish flags, cards and mementoes dedicated to the memory of the six deceased young people.
The Minister, who flew to San Francisco yesterday to offer support at the request of the Taoiseach, recalled what he and John Schuster would have considered an everyday, innocuous conversation.
“John, Nick’s father, spent his youth in Listowel. I knew them very well and John was down at Writers Week in Listowel, and we had a long conversation then.
“His other son Alexi was with him, and he did mention the fact that Nicky was a J1 student, but it was at Writer’s Week where a lot was happening. But they were very connected to Listowel,” said Minister Deenihan.
Aoife Beary, 21, one of the seven injured students who remain in hospital, also has Listowel connections which made the visit very personal for Minister Deenihan.
“People have been calling me that know the families, so each of those families there we have friends in common.
“It shows how small a country we are, and then a lot of victims are from South County Dublin, so this has hit everyone very hard,” he said.
Minister Deenihan met families of the dead and injured at the special centre set up in Berkeley Police HQ to coordinate assistance since Tuesday before joining a procession of friends and relatives to the memorial shrine set up beside the Liberty Gardens apartment complex.
At the shrine he spoke of the impact the tragedy has made at home and abroad.
“First of all I’d like to acknowledge here the members of the families of the deceased.
“They’re all represented here this evening. It’s a very sad occasion for them. They’ve been through a very traumatic time for the last three days and the sympathy of Ireland is with you.
“I’ve never seen such an outpouring of genuine sympathy and grief from the whole country for the families of the bereaved.
“The six who are dead have become the children of Ireland. They have now become symbols of our country, and the people have responded accordingly in so many different ways.
“I would like on behalf of the Irish government and of the Taoiseach and the leaders of all political parties to express my sincere sympathy to all the families and also to the families of those people who are injured, and who are in hospital.
“We wish them a speedy recovery and also remember those people who were in the company of those who are dead at the time they died.
“It’s a traumatic time for them as well and they need our support, and they will get that support,” he said.
The Minister thanked the Berkeley authorities and the Irish Immigrant Pastoral Centre for all their assistance to the families of the bereaved and injured.
He also said: “The contribution that Philip Grant, the Consul-General here in San Francisco, and his staff has made has been quite extraordinary, and has been recognised by all the families.”
Repatriation arrangements are likely to be confirmed later today.
Yesterday the Irish Immigrant Pastoral Centre tweeted a request for people who have booked on Sunday’s flight from San Francisco to Dublin to give up their seats.
The tweet read: “Tragedy families need seats on Aer Lingus direct flight SFO-DUB on Sunday 6.21. If you would give your seat, call 415.816.0887.”
When asked about this last night Consul-General Philip Grant said: “That’s not for the families, it’s because a lot of students would like to go home in advance for the funerals.”