Ireland's President Michael Higgins visited Berkeley Wednesday to meet with emergency crews who responded to the collapse of an apartment balcony that killed five Irish students in June.
The Bay Area visit comes during a weeklong tour of the West Coast. Higgins arrived in San Francisco on Sunday after visiting Washington last week and has visited Tesla Motors and the Irish Cultural Center of San Francisco.
"All of you shared this tragedy with us and that is the reason we join today in solidarity and gratitude … for what you have done to help those who have suffered so much as a result," Higgins said.
Higgins visited Berkeley on Wednesday afternoon and delivered an address at the University of California at Berkeley entitled "Ending Global Hunger and Eliminating Poverty: Is It Possible?"
He also attended a reception at the Hotel Shattuck Plaza in Berkeley, shaking hands with nearly 50 first-responders and thanking them for helping the college students who were hurt and killed June 16 at the Library Gardens apartment complex at 2020 Kittredge St.
"I’ve been here 30 years and I’ve never seen anything of this magnitude," said Rick Guzman with the Berkeley Fire Department. "And to have the president make a special trip to our side of the pond is something special. It really means a lot to me."
Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates and Higgins also planted arbutus saplings at Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park in a memorial for the six students who lost their lives when the fourth-floor balcony suddenly gave way during a birthday party, dumping 13 people on the ground.
Five 21-year-old Irish nationals visiting on J-1 visas were killed, startling Ireland as families with students visiting the Bay Area frantically tried to contact their loved ones.
The visiting students were identified as Olivia Burke, Eoghan Culligan, Niccolai Schuster, Lorcan Miller and Eimear Walsh. A Rohnert Park resident, Ashley Donohoe, 22, was also killed.
Flaws in the balcony's construction have come under scrutiny since the accident, prompting the Berkeley City Council to adopt amended building codes to prevent similar accidents. A city analysis concluded moisture intrusion rotted wooden joists, causing the deck's collapse.
The state Building Standards Commission decided at its meeting last week to re-examine state building codes in the wake of the tragedy.
Higgins will wrap up his California visit on Thursday with a meeting with Gov. Jerry Brown before departing for Ireland on Friday.