BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) — A 21st-birthday party thrown by a group of visiting Irish college students turned tragic early Tuesday when the fourth-floor balcony they were crowded on collapsed with a sharp crack, spilling 13 people about 50 feet onto the pavement. Six people were killed and seven seriously injured.
Police and fire and building officials were working to figure out why the roughly 5-by-10-foot concrete-floor balcony broke loose from the side of the stucco apartment building, situated a couple of blocks from the campus of the University of California, Berkeley.
High school student Jason Biswas’ family nearby was awakened by the noise.
“They thought there was an earthquake, but then we looked out the window and saw seven or eight people on the ground,” the 16-year-old said. “There were piles of blood everywhere.”
Five of the dead were 21-year-olds from Ireland who were in the country on so-called J-1 visas that enable young people to work and travel in the U.S. over the summer, while the sixth victim was from California, authorities said.
The news brought an outpouring of grief in Ireland, from the prime minister on down.
Police had gotten a complaint about a loud party in the apartment about an hour before the accident but had not yet arrived when the balcony gave way just after 12:30 a.m., spokesman Byron White said. Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny said police told him 13 people were on the balcony.
“I just heard a bang and a lot of shouting,” said Dan Sullivan, a 21-year-old student from Ireland who was asleep in the five-story building. Mark Neville, another Irish student in the building, said: “I walked out and I saw rubble on the street and a bunch of Irish students crying.”
The U.S. government’s J-1 program brings 100,000 college students to this country every year, with large numbers landing jobs at resorts, summer camps and other attractions. The San Francisco Bay area is especially popular with Irish students, many of whom work at Fisherman’s Wharf and other tourist sites.
Sinead Loftus, 21, who attends Trinity College Dublin and is living this summer in a different apartment in Berkeley, said a few hundred Irish college students from many schools head to the Bay area. Berkeley, she said, is “the Irish hub.”
“It’s student-friendly, it’s warm and it’s a lot cheaper than San Francisco,” she said. In fact, she said, “I’ve heard people complain there are too many people from Ireland here.”
Berkeley Police Chief Michael Neeham said the response to the noise complaint had been given a lower priority after police received a call of shots fired elsewhere. Police arrived to find the metal-rail balcony had fallen off the side of the building and landed on the 3rd-floor balcony beneath it.
Berkeley officials said the building code would have required the balcony to hold 60 pounds per square foot, which in this case would work out to somewhere around 3,000 pounds – more than 13 normal-size people.
Investigators will probably look first at whether the balcony was built to code and whether rain or other weather weakened it, said Kevin Moore, a San Francisco-based engineer and chairman of the structural standards committee of the Structural Engineers Association of California.
“Often times, they see weather a lot more than interior places, so deterioration can play a part,” Moore said. Weather, “overloading, inadequate design, all these things come up in the investigations.”
In the meantime, city inspectors barred use of the building’s other balconies while they are checked for safety.
The Library Gardens apartment complex, completed in 2007, is in a lively part of downtown Berkeley close to the campus and is a popular place for students to live. Several tenants reached by telephone said it is well-maintained.
The building is owned by BlackRock, the largest asset management fund in the U.S., according to city officials, and managed by Greystar Management, whose website says it operates more than 400,000 units in the U.S. and abroad. A call to Greystar officials was not immediately returned.
On the closed street below, a shrine was growing: flowers, a pack of cigarettes, a Cal Berkeley banner and condolence notes. Irish families were being notified, some heading for California.
The dead were identified as Ashley Donohoe, 22, of Rohnert Park, California, and Ireland’s Oliva Burke, Eoghan Culligan, Niccolai Schuster, Lorcan Miller and Eimear Walsh.
“My heart breaks for the parents who lost children this morning, and I can only imagine the fear in the hearts of other parents whose children are in California this summer as they seek to contact them now,” Ireland’s prime minister told lawmakers in Dublin.
“It is truly terrible to have such a serious and sad incident take place at the beginning of a summer of adventure and opportunity for so many young people on J-1 visas in the U.S.”
A 2010 Associated Press investigation of the J-1 program and the companies that arrange the visits found that many students paid thousands of dollars to come to the U.S., only to learn the jobs they were promised didn’t exist. Some had to share beds in crowded houses or filthy apartments.
Following the investigation, the State Department tightened its rules governing participating businesses.