Six killed, seven in­jured when bal­cony col­lapses

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Tracy Lien, Javier Pan­zar and Maura Dolan

BERKE­LEY — The Biswas fam­ily was try­ing to sleep, but the group par­ty­ing on the bal­cony a f loor above them was too loud.

At 12:42 a.m. Tues­day, they heard a crack and the build­ing shud­dered. Sil­via Biswas jumped out of bed, think­ing an earth­quake had struck and the apart­ments were about to col­lapse.

When she looked out the win­dow, she saw peo­ple ly­ing on the ground. No one was scream­ing. The street was silent.

She thought they might be act­ing un­til she and her teenage son, Jason, went down­stairs. They dis­cov­ered dead and griev­ously in­jured vic­tims around the side­walk and curb, ly­ing amid bits of stucco and red party cups.

“There were about 12 bod­ies on the ground and one girl was on the curb,” Jason said. “One guy was walk­ing around, but he was bleed­ing a lot. He looked like

he had punc­tured his lung.”

Six peo­ple died and seven were in­jured when the bal­cony col­lapsed and sent them plung­ing 40 feet to the ground.

The vic­tims were largely stu­dents from Ire­land work­ing in the Bay Area for the sum­mer. They were cel­e­brat­ing a woman’s 21st birth­day.

“This is ev­ery par­ent’s worst night­mare, to wake up to an ap­palling tragedy far away, and in­deed, there are thou­sands of Ir­ish stu­dents work­ing abroad over the sum­mer months from our univer­si­ties and col­leges,” Char­lie Flana­gan, Ire­land’s min­is­ter for for­eign af­fairs, told Ir­ish broad­caster RTE.

Of­fi­cials in the city, named af­ter the Ir­ish philoso­pher Ge­orge Berke­ley, would not com­ment on what might have caused the col­lapse, but three engi­neers who vis­ited the site on their own said there were clear signs that dry rot had eaten away at the wooden joists sup­port­ing the bal­cony.

“It was de­cayed,” said Dar­rick Hom, pres­i­dent of the Struc­tural Engi­neers Assn. of North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, not­ing that in­spec­tors were “touch­ing it with their hand and pieces were com­ing off.”

“Ob­vi­ously, if you touch a wood beam on your deck, it should not come off in your hand,” he said.

Five of the dead were Ir­ish: Oliva Burke, 21; Eoghan Cul­li­gan, 21; Nic­co­lai Schuster, 21; Lor­can Miller, 21; and Eimear Walsh, 21. All were in Cal­i­for­nia work­ing un­der J-1 visas, which al­low univer­sity stu­dents to hold jobs in the United States for up to four months.

“There isn’t a fam­ily in Ire­land whose chil­dren haven’t come over on that pro­gram,” Philip Grant, the Ir­ish con­sul gen­eral in San Fran­cisco, said at a news con­fer­ence in Berke­ley. “This is nor­mally a life-form­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. It is deeply, deeply tragic and it touches ev­ery sin­gle fam­ily in Ire­land.”

Ash­ley Dono­hoe, 22, of Rohn­ert Park in Sonoma County also was killed.

Grant said many of the dead and in­jured at­tended Trin­ity Col­lege and Univer­sity Col­lege Dublin. He said their fam­i­lies would be­gin ar­riv­ing at lo­cal hos­pi­tals Tues­day night.

Po­lice re­ceived com­plaints about a noisy party at the Li­brary Gar­dens apart­ment on Kit­tredge Street about 12:02 a.m., but of­fi­cers did not re­spond be­cause of a re­port of gun­fire in South Berke­ley, Po­lice Chief Michael Mee­han said.

When 911 calls about the col­lapse came in, of­fi­cers were there within two min­utes.

At least eight am­bu­lances, along with mul­ti­ple fire en­gines, also re­sponded, ac­cord­ing to 911 record­ings.

The apart­ment where the party had taken place was empty when author­i­ties ar­rived, ac­cord­ing to fire­fight­ers heard on the record­ings. Sil­via Biswas, 38, said there was no noise in the unit af­ter the crash. The crack she had heard was the fifth­floor bal­cony crash­ing onto her next-door neigh­bor’s bal­cony, which is at­tached to her bed­room wall.

Mark Neville, an Ir­ish stu­dent who lives on the ground floor of the build­ing, told the lo­cal NBC sta­tion that his home­town in Long­ford County was in shock.

“My par­ents are per­son­ally in a state of panic,” he said. “My dad said it was the worst hour and a half of his life just wait­ing for the call back say­ing I’m safe.”

City of­fi­cials red-tagged three other bal­conies at the Li­brary Gar­dens, a 177-unit com­plex that opened in 2007. Engi­neers in­spected the dam­age to de­ter­mine what caused the col­lapse.

“It ap­pears to be a clas­sic case of dry rot, mean­ing wa­ter in­truded into the build­ing, rot­ted the wood” that held up the deck, said Gene St. Onge, a civil and struc­tural engi­neer in Oak­land who vis­ited the site but was not part of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

This bal­cony — built un­der cur­rent codes — should easily be able to sup­port 13 peo­ple.

“If you had 14 peo­ple, and they were all — I don’t know — football play­ers, and they were jump­ing up and down, you would get a fair amount of de­flec­tion,” he said. “But if the [wooden sup­ports] were de­signed even un­der min­i­mal stan­dards, it should still have held.”

Bernard Cuzzillo, a con­sult­ing engi­neer who has a doc­tor­ate in me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing from UC Berke­ley, said there was vis­i­ble mold in one of the bro­ken wooden joists. And it broke into short fibers at the fail­ure point, a sign of dry rot. If the wood had not rot­ted, “you would see long slen­der splin­ters,” he said. “It would look like a bro­ken base­ball bat.”

He said the joists looked to be so com­pro­mised that much of them ap­peared to dis­in­te­grate dur­ing the col­lapse.

In Fe­bru­ary, Berke­ley city of­fi­cials re­ported po­ten­tial safety vi­o­la­tions at the apart­ment com­plex, though none re­lated to the bal­conies, city records show.

Stair­case lights didn’t work, signs were miss­ing, handrails were loose and a fire ex­tin­guisher was past its ex­pi­ra­tion date, ac­cord­ing to an in­spec­tor from the city’s build­ing code en­force­ment of­fice. The prob­lems re­mained un­fixed de­spite a prior in­spec­tion and warn­ing let­ter, the doc­u­ment shows, but were not el­e­vated to the level of a “cited hous­ing vi­o­la­tion.”

The vi­o­la­tion no­tice ac­com­pa­nied a thick sheaf of com­plaints al­leg­ing poor main­te­nance by a ten­ant who has lived there since 2009.

Rahila Jar­rett said apart­ment man­agers threat­ened to evict her for her re­peated of­fi­cial com­plaints.

“I know these is­sues are im­por­tant and I am be­ing pun­ished for rais­ing them,” she said. “But ob­vi­ously some­thing is not safe here and as a re­sult, six peo­ple died, six young peo­ple.”

She re­ceived a let­ter April 29 from the law firm that rep­re­sents Li­brary Gar­dens, dis­miss­ing her com­plaints and re­quests to con­tact the com­pany’s up­per man­age­ment.

The owner of the land is listed as Gran­ite Li­brary Gar­dens, an in­vest­ment fund man­aged by New York­based Black­Rock. Black­Rock leases the prop­erty to Greystar, a Vir­ginia com­pany that owns more than 400,000 res­i­dences na­tion­wide.

Rent for one- and twobed­room apart­ments at Li­brary Gar­dens ranges from $2,150 a month to $4,000.

Greystar did not re­turn calls for com­ment but is­sued a state­ment ex­press­ing con­do­lences.

“Our hearts go out to the fam­i­lies and friends of the de­ceased and those in­jured in this tragic ac­ci­dent,” the state­ment said. “We have taken pre­cau­tion­ary steps to limit ac­cess to other bal­conies at the apart­ment com­plex as law en­force­ment com­pletes its in­ves­ti­ga­tion.”

Build­ing res­i­dents said they en­joyed the Ir­ish stu­dents’ cheer­ful pres­ence.

“They were the sweet­est peo­ple in the world,” said Ce­leste Thomas, 27. “They were so nice. I just spoke to them three days ago. It stings just that much more when you just saw the per­son.”

She said that po­lice rarely an­swer noise com­plaints. If they had re­sponded to that first noise com­plaint, “those peo­ple would still be alive,” she said.

Grant and Berke­ley Mayor Tom Bates at­tended a wreath-lay­ing cer­e­mony for the vic­tims Tues­day evening.

“To­day has prob­a­bly been the most dif­fi­cult time in the history of the con­sulate on the West Coast,” Grant told re­porters. “Our thoughts and our prayers are with the fam­i­lies of those who trag­i­cally lost their lives last night.”

Mark Boster Los An­ge­les Times

ENGI­NEERS LOOK for clues af­ter a bal­cony col­lapsed at the Li­brary Gar­dens in Berke­ley. The vic­tims were largely stu­dents from Ire­land who were work­ing in the Bay Area for the sum­mer.

Pho­tog raphs by Mark Boster Los An­ge­les Times

PEO­PLE DROP off f low­ers at a me­mo­rial on the side­walk out­side the Li­brary Gar­dens, where the col­lapse oc­curred.

PEO­PLE VIEW wreck­age. “My par­ents are per­son­ally in a state of panic. My dad said it was the worst hour and a half of his life just wait­ing for the call say­ing I’m safe,” said one Ir­ish stu­dent who lives in the build­ing.

1,000 FEET

Hearst Ave.

UC Berke­ley t.

e St. S Kit­tredg a vi il M Site of col­lapse

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