City Deems Second Berkeley Balcony Unsafe After Deadly Collapse

Mourners gathered Wednesday at a memorial near a Berkeley apartment where a balcony collapsed this week, leaving six 20-something students dead and seven hospitalized with critical injuries, as city officials deemed another balcony in the same building structurally unsafe.

Flowers, cards and the hub of a car tire marked the spot near the apartment where five Irish 21-year-olds and one 22-year-old from Rohnert Park dropped to their deaths from five stories at about 12:30 a.m. Tuesday as the work-exchange students were celebrating a birthday party.

Officials were working to figure out why the small balcony broke loose from the side of the stucco apartment housed at 2020 Kittredge Street, a complex just a couple of blocks from the campus of the University of California, Berkeley. And on Wednesday, the city ordered the property management company to remove a second balcony after drilling holes on Tuesday, after structural engineers deemed it unsafe. Balconies at two other units were red-tagged, meaning that access to them was forbidden.

The "notice of violation," issued by Patrick Emmons from the planning and development department on Tuesday, was sent to Blackrock Financial, and its property manager, Greystar.

After inspecting the entire complex on Tuesday, inspectors deemed one of the balconies, in unit 305, "unsafe" and "presents a collapse hazard endangering public safety." The order demanded that balcony be taken down in 24 hours. The balcony that actually failed on Tuesday was outside unit 405, directly underneath unit 305.

At a somber news conference on Tuesday, five of the victims were identified as: Olivia Burke, Eoghan Culligan, Niccolai Schuster, Lorcan Miller and Eimear Walsh. All were 21, and all were from Ireland. 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. Some of their families flew in from Ireland on Tuesday night, others were arriving this week.

The tragedy struck close to home for many Irish students who also came to the San Francisco Bay Area for the summer on a J-1 visa, and who live near or at the same apartment complex, Library Garden Apartments.

"It's absolutely tragic to think it might have been one of us," Sinead Loftus said. "It might have been me or my roommate. They were exactly like me."

The U.S. government's J-1 program brings 100,000 college students to this country every year, many of them landing jobs at resorts, summer camps and other attractions. The San Francisco Bay area is especially popular with Irish students, about 700 of whom are working and playing here this summer, according to Ireland's Philip Grant. Many work at Fisherman's Wharf and other tourist sites.

Loftus, who attends Trinity College in Dublin," called Berkeley the Bay Area's "Irish hub."

And in Ireland, the deaths took their toll, as well, The front pages of the major newspapers carried images of the six students, and churches held vigils throughout the country.

Investigators will look at such things as whether the balcony was built to code, whether it was overloaded and whether rain or other weather weakened it, said Kevin Moore, chairman of the structural standards committee of the Structural Engineers Association of California.
Berkeley officials said the building code at the time of construction required the balcony hold at least 60 pounds per square foot. That requirement has since been raised to 100 pounds.

Berkeley spokesman Matthai Chakko said officials have not measured the balcony to find out how big it was and how much weight it was built to bear based on the 60-pound per square foot standard in place when the building went up. Chakko also said there is no city requirement to post a weight restriction for balconies in apartments.

Grace Kang, a structural engineer and spokeswoman for Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research Center at Berkeley, said the balcony's dimensions looked to her to be 4 by 6 feet, or 24 square feet.

That would mean the balcony should hold at least 1,440 pounds, a total that likely would have been exceeded by 13 adults. "They were packed like sardines, and then they were moving," she said. When people are moving it "may further exacerbate" the strain.

Also, the apartment house was a wood-frame construction, and the balcony was cantilevered out from the building, with no additional support beneath. Both can make a balcony more vulnerable to dry rot and weathering in general, Kang said.

The Library Gardens Apartment has been contoversial from its beginnings, as long documented in the Berkeley Daily Planet. In a 2006 article, the newspaper wrote about the debate about whether to turn the property into apartments or condos, and because the new construction demanded the demolition of one of the city's most popular parking lots.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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