A fourth-floor apartment building balcony collapsed onto the sidewalk just blocks from the University of California, Berkeley campus early Tuesday, killing six young people celebrating a 21st birthday and leaving seven other people injured, police said.
Five of the victims were all 21-year-olds from Ireland. They were identified as: Olivia Burke, Eoghan Culligan, Niccolai Schuster, Lorcan Miller and Eimear Walsh. Most were from Dublin.
The sixth victim was identified by the Alameda County Coroner Sgt. JD Nelson as Ashley Donohoe, 22, an Irish-American from Rohnert Park. She was related to Burke.
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The coroner's office said all victims died as a result of multiple blunt traumatic injuries.
A memorial of menthol Parliament cigarettes, flowers, lollipops and cards marked the fatal scene. The families of the victims are expected to arrive from Ireland Tuesday evening.
The building in question, Library Gardens Apartments, is owned by Blackrock Financial in New York and managed by the Houston-based Greystar.
"Our hearts go out to the families and friends of the deceased and those injured in this tragic accident," a Greystar spokesperson said in a statement. "The safety of our residents is our highest priority."
A Blackrock spokesperson said an independent structural engineer was being dispatched to review the situation.
NBC Bay Area's chopper flew overhead at 2020 Kittredge Street, showing a small balcony that had ripped off a pale yellow building and debris scattered in the street. As many as 13 or 14 people had been on the balcony, police and witnesses said. Police say all the other balconies in the complex were red-tagged Tuesday morning, too, as a precaution. A property restoration company arrived before 11 a.m. to take down the balcony altogether.
"I was absolutely devastated to hear the news, particularly when one thinks of young lives that are the edge of so much and looking forward to futures that were very bright," Ireland's president, Michael Higgins told NBC News from a conference he was attending in Italy.
University College Dublin President Andrew Deeks expressed heartbreak at the news of the accident involving UCD students and their friends. It's not immediately clear whether all five students attended UCD. The university has started a Book of Condolence for the students who lost their lives.
"It is with deepest sadness that I speak of the tragic accident involving UCD students and their friends in San Francisco," the statement said. "On behalf of the entire university community, I wish to extend our condolences to the families and friends of those who died and to those who were injured. We cannot comprehend the desperate shock and grief they are feeling and we are heartbroken at their suffering and loss."
And in the United States, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Berkeley) tweeted she was "shocked" and "heartbroken."
At an afternoon news conference, Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates said he was "awestruck by this incredible tragedy. It's really a shocking set of events." He added that the city will inspect what happened and "get to the bottom of it."
Many of the injured were taken to at least four hospitals in critical condition with life-threatening wounds, police spokeswoman Jennifer Coats said. Witnesses at the scene said many of the young people, mostly in their 20s, were in California to work and study for the summer. Two young women said the gathering was for a female friend's birthday, who had just turned 21 and was working at a San Francisco restaurant. They were part of a Dublin-based group called USIT Ireland, which expressed on its website its "deepest sympathy and support" to the families involved in this "truly tragic situation."
Police officer Byron White said they received a noise complaint about a loud party about an hour before the 12:41 a.m. collapse, but they did not respond. Later, Police Chief Mike Meehan said that officers were busy dealing with shots fired in the southern part of the city. When officers arrived they found that the balcony on the fourth floor of the building, completed in 2006, had disintegrated. Meehan said at this point, Berkeley police are not conducting a criminal probe into the deaths.
Mark Neville lives on the ground floor of the building and is also is Berkeley on a J-1 visa from his hometown in Longford County, Ireland.
"Everyone back home is in shock," he said. "My parents are personally in state of panic. My dad said it was worst hour and half of his life just waiting for the call back saying I'm safe."
Alfredo Durán, who does maintenance in the building and lives there, said that he heard a party, "a lot of music and noise," before the balcony collapsed. Though he did not go outside, he speculated that the party goers might have been jumping on the balcony.
“I’m scared and concerned for the building," he said. "I live here. Anything can happen."
Early in the morning, before the victims were identified, Ireland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Charlie Flanagan asked anyone with such a visa call their parents at home to let them know if they were OK. These visas allow people to teach, study, research and be trained in the United States.
“My heart goes out to the families and loved ones of the deceased and those who have been injured in this appalling accident,” Flanagan said in a statement. “My department in Dublin stands ready to provide all possible consular assistance to Irish citizens affected by this tragedy.”
According to the Irish Times, more than 8,000 Irish students go to the United States on these visas, and 35 percent, or 2,800, travel to California, with the San Francisco Bay Area as their top spot.
Speaking at the afternoon news conference at Berkeley City Hall, Consul General of Ireland to the Western United States Philip Grant noted that this is normally a "formative" time for the "thousands" who come for the overseas exchange program. He said the deaths have left his "countrymen frozen in disbelief. We're a close tight-knit group. Very few of us have been left untouched."
The building is just two blocks from the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, which offers visiting students accommodation through a subletting service, the Times reported.
The company manages more than 400,000 apartments around the country, including five in Berkeley. On its website, the apartments are touted as the "premiere choice for convenient Berkeley" living, near "world class" shopping and restaurants.
It has been announced that flags will fly at half mast over major public buildings on Wednesday #Berkeley
— The Irish Times (@IrishTimes) June 16, 2015
No one answered the phone at the apartment complex in Berkeley early Tuesday morning.
Coats said officers are still investigating and she doesn't have any information on how it occurred or what the people were doing on the structure at the time.
"We don't know what happened, " she said. "This was a traumatic scene. Our officers and paramedics responded very quickly. They did what they could to help as many people as they could. It's going to be a very sad day for a lot of these victims' families to get this kind of news."
The deaths reignited a debate in Berkeley over the density of the city, and how much new housing should be added to the city.
Carrie Olson, who used to serve on the city's Design Review Committee, blamed many people, including the mayor, for allowing so many people to be "stuffed" into a building.
City councilman Jesse Arreguin wrote on Facebook that the property management company "had a history of not properly responding to tenant requests for repairs. This structural collapse makes us wonder if this whole tragedy could have been avoided with proper attention and maintenance."
The surviving victims were taken to these hospitals: John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek had two of the patients, Eden Medical Center in Castro Valley had four of the patients, and Highland Hospital and UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital, both in Oakland, had the remaining patients.
Neighbor Gerald Robinson doesn't know the people who lived there well, but he did say that he knew that many of them were Irish, because of their heavy accents. He ended up taking some people to the hospital after two "desperate students" needed a ride. Robinson said the students he drove didn't know about the deaths at the time.
"The kids there have no idea what's happened," he said.
Later in the morning, the news had spread about the deaths. Dan Sullivan, who also is visiting Berkeley from Ireland, said the whole ordeal is quite shocking. "When you come out to work for the summer in California," he said, "you don’t expect a tragedy like this. It's just horrific."
NBC Bay Area's Shawn Murphy, Riya Bhattacharjee, Allen Wedington, Gonzalo Rojas, Yalda Rafie, Telemundo's Paola Reyes and the Associated Press contributed to this report.