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Alameda County DA Will Not File Criminal Charges in Deadly Berkeley Balcony Collapse

The Alameda County DA will not file criminal charges in the deadly Berkeley balcony collapse last June in which six students lost their lives and seven others sustained serious injuries.

The balcony colllapsed during a 21st birthday celebration at the Library Gardens apartment building at 2020 Kittredge Street, two blocks from the UC Berkeley campus.

Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley said Tuesday she made her decision after a nine-month investigation that drew in state officials and independent experts from the building industry. Investigators determined that water infiltration at the time the balcony was built brought on dry rot and the balcony's collapse.

"This is not a decision that I came to lightly,'' O'Malley said.

The probe also encompassed witness interviews and a review of building plans, logs, inspection and maintenance records.

However, O'Malley says there was insufficient evidence of any criminal negligence to bring manslaughter charges.

"Not a day has passed since the tragedy of June 16 that I have not thought of the victims and their families," Alameda County District Attorney Nancy R. O'Malley said Tuesday. "I am keenly aware of the devastation and injuries each victim and each family suffered and continues to confront.

"Friends, families and entire communities both in California and in Ireland have been affected by the horror of that day."

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.

The coroner's office said all victims died as a result of multiple blunt traumatic injuries.

Gina Trombino was friends with Schuster and saw him "four hours before he passed away," she said.

"It makes me really angry," said Trombino, who worked with Schuster at Sliderbar in Berkeley. "It’s just really depressing. You know these kids came here thinking they were going have the time of their lives."

The building in question, Library Gardens Apartments, is owned by Blackrock Financial in New York and managed by the Houston-based Greystar.

In November, families of those killed and injured filed 12 lawsuits accusing builders of negligence and seeking unspecified damages.

San Francisco legal firm Walkup, Melodia, Kelly & Schoenberger, which represents five of the families, said in a statement Tuesday that criminal charges were not expected given the high burden of proof needed.

Still, the firm said the investigation will benefit the bereaved families and injured students as they pursue the lawsuits.

"It remains our clients' quest to uncover the truth, to hold those responsible accountable, and to bring about changes to industry practices to prevent such a needless tragedy from recurring,'' the statement said.

Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan said in a statement that he also would review the findings.

"My department will carefully consider the details,'' his statement said. "While the district attorney's investigation did not find sufficient proof to take separate criminal proceedings, it has shone a vital light on the circumstances and factors that contributed directly and indirectly to the collapse of the balcony.''

He went on to say that  his department remains in close contact with the victims' families and will continue to offer them support and assistance. The investigation was an important step in preventing similar tragedies, Flanagan added.

However, Donohoe's family disagrees. 

They released a statement, which says in part, "This allows for companies to hide prior wrongdoings and that there may be other balconies or projects that have defects and are not being properly identified."

A central component of the investigation involved what is called "destructive testing'' of the balconies and the building itself.

An outside construction company transported the balconies to a warehouse for the testing.

O'Malley said the testing was observed by representatives of the victims and their families, as well as representatives of companies involved in the construction, maintenance, and ownership of the apartment complex.

Tests showed the dry rot damage was brought on by materials used and the extremely wet weather in Berkeley when the building was constructed.

O'Malley said the responsibility likely extends to many of the parties involved in construction or maintenance of the building.

Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates said he was "not surprised that [O'Malley] couldn’t reach that standard to bring it to a criminal case." The materials used in the building met building codes, he stressed, adding that the city has stepped up inspections.

"We’ve inspected all the balcony’s in Berkeley to make sure they are safe and we are going to go back every three years and inspect them again," Bates said.

The district attorney's office intends to work with the California Contractors State License Board in any administrative action pursued against the construction companies and will collaborate with industry leaders and state legislators to consider amending building codes and inspection oversight laws.

"It’s really upsetting because it seems like all they want to do is point a finger," Trombino said. "And the fact that [the victims'] lives were cut short just because of building negligence is just really depressing. They were 21 just going into their prime."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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