Berkeley first responders speak of the lasting impact the tragedy has had on the city

One year on from the balcony collapse that claimed the lives of six Irish students, those who were first on the scene are still dealing with the tragedy

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Image: Richard Chambers

One year on, the deaths of Olivia Burke, Lorcán Miller, Nicolai Schuster, Eimear Walsh and Ashley Donohoe are still very poignant, and very emotional, for the officers who arrived on the scene in the moments after the balcony on the Library Gardens building collapsed.

Speaking at Berkeley Police Department headquarters on Memorial Day, Karen Huckaby, who answered the phones on the night, and Jitendra Singh, who was the second person on the scene, detailed what it was like to be there as the tragedy began to unfold.

Singh describes it as "chaotic, in a lot of different ways. And when you see the whole scene, it looked almost like a movie set. There's a balcony sitting on top of another one, there's just people laying on the ground, and it's kind of unreal."

For Huckaby, the task of responding to the flood of calls as the news began to spread has made a lasting impression, as family and friends tried to find out what was going on. 

"Even though you knew that there were some people who had passed," she said, "we couldn't tell anybody anything. They're begging, and it's just tragic to us, because we can't tell them anything.

"One woman who called, that I talked to several times, was the mother of the girl who lived here. At one point, I knew her daughter had died, and I couldn't tell her. It was just so hard."

In the days and weeks following the disaster, a large room was basically given over as a sanctuary for the families. The Irish Consulate were particularly appreciative of the haven given to them by the Berkeley Police Department and the city itself, but when the dust cleared, the wounds remained open.

Officer Wilson, who was also one of the first responders, spoke about the vitality and the enthusiasm of the J1 students who come to Berkeley, noting that he had gotten to know many of them last year, which made it really hit home for him. 

"Great kids, just seeing how excited they were about being in the States, working here. Getting that experience that most kids that age, who have the ability to be able to do it, would love to do it.

"It was great having them here [...] they partied hard, they were a rambunctious group! But for us [...] them being in the town, you can always tell the J1 students, that's what Berkeley's all about".

How has Berkeley changed?

Perhaps the face of the city's response to the tragedy was Mayor Tom Bates. Many will remember the emotional image of Sabina and President Higgins' recent visit to the city as they planted a tree near the Library Gardens complex alongside the Mayor. 

His efforts have been deeply appreciated by the families affected, as well as those of his wife Loni Hancock, a State Senator who has pushed hard for a change in building practices since the disaster.

Image: Sabina Higgins, second from right, tears up at a tree planting ceremony alongside her husband Michael D. Higgins. Joining the Higginses were Berkeley mayor Tom Bates, left, and his wife Loni Hancock, second from left. Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP/Press Association Images

Speaking form his home on Monday, Mayor Bates explained that there have been a number of efforts to learn from the disaster, which has seen every balcony checked to ensure their safety.

"A lot of them are in a state of repairs. It's surprising, the number of balconies that actually have weakened and need to be repaired. It's all over town now they're fixing balconies. It's a little late, but still is very important for the future."

Bates also expressed concern at the stories of Irish students who have been finding difficulty in getting accommodation in the city this summer as they embark on their J1 journey. 

"It's something that I definitely need to look into, because we don't want to discriminate [...] we cherish ourselves as being enlightened people and people who are liberal, and want to make sure that people's rights are not trampled upon."

A human tragedy

Since the tragedy, a strong and constant link-up between the city and the Irish Consulate has been established. Huge efforts were made to get the Berkeley Police and Fire Departments over to Ireland to be honoured, and of course, some marched on St Patrick’s Day in Dublin in the capital's parade.

At a more human and personal level however, the first responders feel a unique link to the survivors and their families. Officer Jitendra Singh in particular, pointed out that the connection which he has developed with people back in Ireland is something he holds dear.

"There are a few things in our career that don't get erased. This is one of the incidents that's not going to ever be erased. Even to this day as I'm talking to you I can see the scene, I can feel it. It is something that has emotionally affected me."

You can hear the full report below: