Com­mu­nity co­a­lesces af­ter tragedy

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Lee Rom­ney

BERKE­LEY — It has been a week since a bal­cony col­lapse at an apart­ment com­plex here shat­tered the lives of 13 fam­i­lies and sent Ire­land into mourn­ing.

The tragedy left six Ir­ish stu­dents dead, one of them a Rohn­ert Park, Calif., res­i­dent with dual cit­i­zen­ship. Seven were in­jured, some with head and spinal trauma.

What fol­lowed was an out­pour­ing of sup­port, from the Berke­ley po­lice and fire per­son­nel who shut­tled loved ones from air­ports, of­fered a com­mand cen­ter of sorts for the griev­ing and pro­vided sus­te­nance and coun­sel­ing.

From the hos­pi­tals that carted day beds into con­fer­ence rooms for the friends and rel­a­tives of the in­jured.

From hun­dreds of Ir­ish stu­dents who make up the an­nual sum­mer di­as­pora of J- 1 visa hold­ers and f lew in from as far away as New York.

And from Bay Area priests and or­di­nary Ir­ish ex­pa­tri­ates who sat with the dis­tressed and in­jured, pur­chased tooth­paste and other sun­dries for fam­ily mem­bers of the hos­pi­tal-

ized, of­fered hugs and shared tears.

“I am just over­whelmed by grat­i­tude,” said the Rev. Ai­dan McAleenan of St. Columba Catholic Church in Oak­land, who of­fered his ser­vices Tues­day morn­ing through the San Fran­cis­cobased Ir­ish Immigration Pas­toral Cen­ter. He spent days min­is­ter­ing to the youths and their fam­i­lies, and held a wake in his sanc­tu­ary for four of the dead.

“All stops were pulled out,” he said. “The com­mu­nity ral­lied. And any­body with a heart was sup­port­ive.”

Five bod­ies have been re­turned to Ire­land, and the sixth laid to rest near Santa Rosa, Calif.

Sean Fa­hey, who broke his leg, was re­leased from Cas­tro Val­ley’s Eden Med­i­cal Cen­ter on Mon­day and re­turned home Tues­day with his par­ents. Two other sur­vivors — Jack Halpin and Conor Flynn — were listed in fair con­di­tion at John Muir Med­i­cal Cen­ter in Wal­nut Creek. Among the re­main­ing four — Clodagh Cog­ley and Niall Mur­ray at Eden, and Aoife Beary and Han­nah Wa­ters at Oak­land’s High­land Hos­pi­tal — the ar­du­ous process of heal­ing is on­go­ing.

“In a num­ber of cases it can take weeks be­fore we know the ex­tent of the phys- ical trauma, and there’s go­ing to be men­tal trauma as well,” said Philip Grant, the San Fran­cisco- based Ir­ish con­sul gen­eral for the West. “They’re all on a long road to re­cov­ery.… It’s our job to make sure it’s as smooth a road as pos­si­ble.”

Con­ti­nu­ity of care is key, Grant said, so some of the in­jured and their fam­i­lies are likely to re­main in the Bay Area for some time.

Grant de­scribed an emo­tion­ally wrench­ing week that came with a bless­ing as friends of the dead and in­jured — all ages 20 to 22 — be­came “the glue that held the bro­ken hearts to­gether.”

Stu­dents held the hands of the dy­ing and in­jured and then fanned out to the hos­pi­tals, Grant said. They en­abled f irst re­spon­ders to iden­tify the vic­tims, match­ing de­scrip­tions of tat­toos and out­fits worn at the party, bring­ing “all of the pieces of the puz­zle to­gether,” he added.

Stu­dents also helped Grant no­tify fam­i­lies back home, and at Grant’s direc- tion mon­i­tored Twit­ter for any mis­in­for­ma­tion and “came down on it like a ton of bricks.”

The decades- old J- 1 visa pro­gram al­lows univer­sity stu­dents to work and travel in the U. S. and has brought tens of thou­sands of young Ir­ish men and women here for sum­mer jobs. In the days fol­low­ing the tragedy, many f lew in from New York, San Diego and Chicago to of­fer sup­port.

“They acted col­lec­tively, they stayed to­gether, they formed their own sup­port struc­tures,” Grant said.

Grant was awak­ened in the early hours of June 16 by Berke­ley Po­lice Sgt. Sean Ross. So be­gan an un­usu­ally tight col­lab­o­ra­tion with po­lice and fire per­son­nel here.

In the joint ad­min­is­tra­tion build­ing, city of­fi­cials set aside con­fer­ence rooms for those who had seen their friends plunge four sto­ries, for those who learned of it af­ter­ward, and for the bleary- eyed and shell­shocked fam­i­lies who trick­led in af­ter trans- At­lantic f lights. The city’s mo­bile cri­sis team pro­vided coun­sel­ing. The coro­ner and vi­tal records per­son­nel worked to ex­pe­dite death cer­tifi­cates.

Also play­ing a key role was the Ir­ish Pas­toral Immigration Cen­ter, which con­ducts an ori­en­ta­tion each year for the J- 1 stu­dents and links them with jobs and lodg­ing.

McAleenan f irst came to the U. S. in 1986 as a J- 1 stu­dent. He was in a small room in the rec­tory the morn­ing of the col­lapse when a friend on Ire­land’s West Coast texted to ask if he was on his way to the hos­pi­tal. Stunned by the news, he im­me­di­ately called the pas­toral cen­ter’s Rev. Bren­dan McBride, who dis­patched him to the Wal­nut Creek and Cas­tro Val­ley hos­pi­tals.

McAleenan lost his fa­ther to sui­cide and his mother and brother died within six months of one another. Now, he was thrust back into the rawest stage of be­reave­ment. In Wal­nut Creek, “I had to com­mu­ni­cate to one of the young guys that his best friend had died,” he said. At Eden hos­pi­tal, he was there when Cog­ley and her fam­ily learned that her spine “was se­ri­ously com­pro­mised.”

“I anointed her and prayed and we even sang a hymn,” he said. “The mother kept say­ing to me, ‘ She’s alive, she’s alive.’ ”

As Mur­ray, cov­ered in blood, was wheeled into surgery, he sought a fa­vor from McAleenan. “Could you tell the oth­ers that I’m ask­ing for them,” he said, “and I love them.”

A fund set up by the pas­toral cen­ter has at­tracted nearly $ 220,000 and the con­sulate has re­ceived other large do­na­tions, Grant said. Bay Area tech com­pa­nies — each with a strong pres­ence in Ire­land — have also stepped up.

Grant said Face­book and Google pulled em­ploy­ees off f lights be­tween Dublin and San Fran­cisco so fam­ily mem­bers could have the seats. Sales­force em­ploy­ees helped the con­sulate se­cure ho­tel ac­com­mo­da­tions near hos­pi­tals and get ac­cess to busi­ness rates. Airbnb has of­fered lodg­ing for fam­i­lies, he said.

On Sun­day, McBride de­liv­ered a homily at a San Fran­cisco mass that drew a crowd of 1,000.

“He said he was asked this week, ‘ Where is God?’ re­called McAleenan, who col­lab­o­rated with him. “Then, not be­ing the­o­log­i­cal or spir­i­tual he put it into plain terms. God was in the hugs and the hos­pi­tal­ity and the prayers of ev­ery­body that em­braced us.”

‘ All stops were pulled out. The com­mu­nity ral­lied. And any­body with a heart was sup­port­ive.’

— Ai­dan McAleenan,

rev­erend at St. Columba Catholic Church in Oak­land

Brian Law­less As­so­ci­ated Press

THE COF­FIN of Eimear Walsh ar­rives Tues­day in Dublin, Ire­land. She died last week af­ter a bal­cony col­lapsed in Berke­ley.

Michael Short As­so­ci­ated Press

MOURN­ERS grieve as the cas­kets of cousins Olivia Burke, 21, and Ash­ley Dono­hoe, 22, are placed in hearses Satur­day in Co­tati, Calif.

Beck Diefenbach As­so­ci­ated Press

A CAN­DLE­LIGHT VIGIL for six Ir­ish stu­dents who died in the bal­cony col­lapse took place last week in Berke­ley. Five bod­ies have been re­turned to Ire­land, and the sixth laid to rest near Santa Rosa, Calif. Seven were in­jured, some with head and spinal trauma.

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