At Ir­ish school, tears mix with prayers

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Christina Boyle and Tracey Lien

DUBLIN, Ire­land — A few weeks ago, Fa­ther Frank Her­ron stood in the assem­bly hall of Loreto Col­lege and presided over a Mass for the grad­u­at­ing class at the pri­vate all-girls Catholic school.

It was a night full of jokes and joy. An evening he de­scribed as one of the “hap­pi­est, jol­liest, laugh-giv­ing ” get-to­geth­ers he had at­tended in a long time.

The pas­tor found him­self stand­ing in the ex­act same lo­ca­tion Wed­nes­day night, but for a painful rea­son.

He was there lead­ing Mass to re­mem­ber the lives of two for­mer stu­dents who died in the Berke­ley bal­cony col­lapse: Olivia Burke and Eimear Walsh, who grad­u­ated from the school in 2012 along with a third woman who re­mained hos­pi­tal­ized with in­juries from the col­lapse.

“Tonight it’s sub­dued,” Her­ron told the au­di­ence. “There’s no mu­sic and we are here for a to­tally dif­fer­ent pur­pose.”

As the mourn­ers filed into the school they were in­vited to sign con­do­lence books set up be­side framed pho­to­graphs of Burke and Walsh, both flash­ing broad smiles for the cam­era.

A class photo was also mounted on an easel.

Once in­side the hall, there was stand­ing room only and the rows were filled with cur­rent and for­mer stu­dents, as well as teach­ers and par­ents.

Her­ron told the au­di­ence he had been ap­proached ear­lier in the day and asked:

“Where was God when this hap­pened?”

He said God had been present in ev­ery as­pect of their lives — when the stu­dents were hav­ing fun at the Berke­ley party, when they were stand­ing on the bal­cony in the warm evening air and also at their deaths.

As he spoke, many in the au­di­ence reached for hand­ker­chiefs and sti­fled sobs.

“We are look­ing at an ac­ci­dent, and ac­ci­dents hap­pen,” he said. “We are look­ing at some­thing that no­body wanted.”

“Ac­ci­dents are part of our lives,” he added. “It’s what we do with them and how we take them on board that’s im­por­tant.”

At a small makeshift al­tar set up on the stage, adorned with a cou­ple of tall white can­dles and some white flow­ers, Her­ron read the names of all six who died.

Af­ter the ser­vice, the stu­dents were in­vited by the prin­ci­pal to stay for tea and many gath­ered in small hud­dles to com­fort each other and take in the enor­mity of their loss.

“It’s heart­break­ing, you’ve got two young girls who are not here any­more,” said Har­ley Djerassi, 21, who knew Burke and Walsh, as she broke into tears. “There’s noth­ing you can say. Noth­ing.”

Hun­dreds of mourn­ers had gath­ered at Her­ron’s church, Our Lady of Per­pet­ual Suc­cour, Tues­day night for an im­promptu vigil that lasted into Wed­nes­day morn­ing.

“It was to­tally spon­ta­neous,” he said. “It just took off in the most ex­tra­or­di­nary way.”

In Berke­ley, as city work­ers con­tin­ued in­spect­ing the dam­aged Li­brary Gar­dens apart­ment build­ing Wed­nes­day, the pile of f low­ers, flags and cards on ei­ther end of the cor­doned-off block grew.

On the western end of the block, the side­walk was stained with fresh wax from the can­dles peo­ple had lighted for those who died: Eoghan Cul­li­gan, 21; Nic­co­lai Schuster, 21; Lor­can Miller, 21; and Ash­ley Dono­hoe, 22, in ad­di­tion to Walsh and Burke.

“I did not get the priv­i­lege of know­ing your names, but see­ing you in our hall­ways, al­ways laugh­ing and chat­ting to­gether as a group fre­quently made me smile,” read a note at­tached to a bou­quet of flow­ers from a neigh­bor. “Our hall­ways will be much qui­eter with­out your friendly energy, and for that you will be sorely missed.”

The Ir­ish con­sulate in San Fran­cisco was work­ing with lo­cal author­i­ties in Berke­ley to set up an in­ci­dent cen­ter to of­fer coun­sel­ing to the be­reaved, while the Light of Christ Cathe­dral in Oak­land planned to hold a Catholic Mass for vic­tims Wed­nes­day evening.

At High­land Hos­pi­tal in Oak­land, where some of the seven stu­dents in­jured in the fall were taken, one rel­a­tive of the stu­dents paced the en­trance to the emer­gency depart­ment. Con­firm­ing his re­la­tion­ship to one of the stu­dents, he didn’t want to be iden­ti­fied, say­ing he wasn’t ready.

“I’m shat­tered,” he said, vis­i­bly ex­hausted. “We just got in from Ire­land last night, we haven’t slept.”

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