DUBLIN — They were supposed to be embarking on the adventure of a lifetime.
But the thrill of a four-month trip to America on a working student visa has ended in unutterable tragedy for at least a dozen Irish students, after a fourth-floor balcony they were standing on collapsed in the early hours of Tuesday morning.
Five young Irish people from the same tight-knit community in South County Dublin and one of their Irish-American cousins were killed outright, two more are said to have ‘life-threatening’ injuries and another five young men and women are in hospital with lesser injuries.
A former colleague of one of the victims told The Daily Beast that the tragedy had cut to the heart of the community. “We have lost one of our own,” said Paul Bailey.
The Irish envoy to America described a nation “frozen in shock and disbelief,” and in Dublin and across Ireland today there was stunned heartbreak as the details of the appalling tragedy unfolded.
The dead have been named as Eoghan Culligan, Nick Schuster, Lorcán Miller, Eimear Walsh, and Olivia Burke, all of them were 21 years old and friends from south Dublin, police confirmed.
The sixth fatality is Irish-American Ashley Donohoe, 22, from California, who was with the group to celebrate the 21st birthday of Aoife Beary. Ashley’s parents are understood to be originally from Ireland and she is thought to be a cousin of Olivia Burke.
Another seven students were seriously injured when the fourth-floor balcony collapsed and two of those are said to have ‘life-threatening’ injuries.
Radio stations, social media and newspapers in Ireland were swamped with coverage of the disaster, and statements of condolence were made in the national parliament. Memorial masses are taking place in churches across the country, but especially in the affluent community of South County Dublin, where all five of the Irish victims of the tragedy came from.
University College Dublin, where Lorcan Miller was a medical student, has opened an online book of condolence.
There was also a growing sense of outrage across the nation as reports claimed that the fourth-floor balcony, which collapsed, was affected by dry rot.
Memorial masses were being held Wednesday in South County Dublin. Two of the students, Eoghan Culligan and Niccolai Schuster, had attended the same secondary school, St Mary’s in Rathmines, and it is believed several of the injured students may also have gone to school there.
Bailey, who works at Irish radio station East Coast FM, where Olivia Burke worked for three months earlier this year on an internship, told the Daily Beast, “It is dreadful and we are all in shock. It is a terrible tragedy, but all the more raw for us as we feel we have lost one of our own.
“Olivia was a really bright, intelligent, and vibrant girl. She always had a smile on her face and a can-do attitude. She was very conscientious, she really embraced the work. She was very kind and caring and considerate; I remember she brought me in a bottle of wine to say thank you at the end of her internship.
“She was just a typical 21-year old girl.”
“They would have all known each other, all the families know each other.”
Dr Annie Doona, president of the Dun Laoighre Institute of Art, Design and Technology, said, “Olivia was a very well-liked, very well-respected, third-year student. This is a terrible tragedy for the students and their families.”
She added that a chaplain from University College was heading to Berkeley to provide pastoral support.
San Francisco is one of the most popular destinations for Irish students embarking on a stay of up to four months in the US on the J-1 visa. The J-1 experience has become a rite of passage for many third-level students, with up to 8,000 students taking up the visas which allow young Irish people to work in bars and restaurants.
Irish students flock to Berkeley because the university town rents out student rooms and accommodation in frat houses for as little as $500 per month, and it is an easy commute to nearby San Francisco. There are believed to be about 400 Irish students in Berkeley.
The apartment in question, number 405 in the Library Gardens development, was rented out by Eimear, Olivia, and Aoife, and many of those attending the gathering would have been staying in apartments close by.
Irish Consul General Philip Grant said: “We have thousands of Irish students who come to the United States every summer on an exchange program.
“It’s a wonderful, formative experience and to have this happen at the start of this season has left us all frozen in shock and disbelief.
“Our hearts are breaking,” he added.
Meanwhile, there has been a furious reaction to a story in The New York Times which, in its reporting of the tragic events, cast aspersions on other students traveling to America on the J-1 visa, accusing them of ‘drunken partying’ and ‘wrecking’ apartments.
The Times wrote that the J-1 visa that the students were on had become “an embarrassment for Ireland.”
“The work-visa program that allowed for the exchanges has in recent years become not just a source of aspiration, but also a source of embarrassment for Ireland, marked by a series of high-profile episodes involving drunken partying and the wrecking of apartments in places like San Francisco and Santa Barbara.”
The Times quoted Dubliner James Howard, 24, who went to San Diego in 2011, who said J-1 life was “party central.”
“There were 18 of us sharing a two-bedroom apartment, and the hundreds of Irish students around us were in a similar situation,” Mr. Howard said.
The Times also quoted an Irish Voice/Irish Central column on the wrecking of an apartment in San Francisco last year.
“Cahir O’Doherty, the arts and culture editor of The Irish Voice, wrote a column in 2014 expressing distress at “the callous destruction unleashed by these loaded Irish students” of a house rented in the Sunset District of San Francisco.
“They ripped chandeliers from the ceilings, they broke doors and they smashed windows; they even punched holes in the walls,” he wrote. “Then they abandoned the place without a heads-up or a word of apology.”
The Times also referred to a J-1 Facebook page to provide evidence of “the work-hard, party-hard lifestyle. Call-outs for car-pooling and accommodations are interspersed with requests for house party sites.”
The Irish Minister for Equality, Aodhan O Riordain, tweeted that the Times’s coverage of the story was, “a disgrace,” and issued a formal statement demanding the article be withdrawn.
“I think it would be the right thing to do to withdraw that report and apologize,” the minister said. “We have six Irish people who are now dead as a result of a tragedy because a balcony collapsed. No other reason.
“The nature and tone of the article is a disgrace … newspaper editors need to realise how sensitive this issue is.”
One of the country's leading broadcasters, Matt Cooper, said he would cancel his New York Times subscription in protest:
Anita Sharma, 43, from Irvington, New York, a first cousin of Eimear Walsh, who was killed in the tragedy, said she was ‘embarrassed’ as an American and ‘very upset’ by the piece in the Times.
“It’s just blame the victim, blame the partying Irish. It absolutely broke my heart because it was absolutely not what Eimear was like.
“She was a good kid; a straight-A student, whip-smart and she wanted to be a doctor. She loved dancing, she loved being with her friends and she was really looking forward to the summer months and being in the US. She had been working as a hostess at a Japanese restaurant, and in just three weeks she had already been promoted to waitress, which gives some indication of her personality.
“I just want to set the record straight. These were all good kids. Blaming the victim and stereotyping the Irish makes me embarrassed as an American. It’s not their fault because they were at a party.”
The New York Times public editor tweeted an acknowledgement that the story may have been inappropriate, but it is still posted on the website.
The New York Times’s vice president of corporate communications, Eileen M. Murphy, apologized, saying the article in question “was a second day story” that sought to contextualise the collapse 24 hours after the deaths took place.
“It was intended to explain in greater detail why these young Irish students were in the US. We understand and agree that some of the language in the piece could be interpreted as insensitive, particularly in such close proximity to this tragedy.
“It was never our intention to blame the victims and we apologize if the piece left that impression. We will continue to cover this story and report on the young people who lost their lives.”