Five Irish J-1 visa students and one Irish-American die and seven others are injured in Berkeley, California, on June 16, 2015, after a fourth-floor balcony on which they are standing collapses. Thirteen people fall from the balcony and four are pronounced dead at the scene while two die later at the hospital.
One of the six killed is a dual Irish-American citizen, Ashley Donohoe, 22, of Rohnert Park, California. The other five are Olivia Burke (Donohue’s cousin), Eoghan Culligan, Niccolai ‘Nick’ Schuster, Lorcán Miller, and Eimear Walsh, all aged 21 and from Dublin.
In June 2015, Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates promises a broad and wide ranging investigation into the cause of the accident with the likely cause being that the balcony of the building had not been constructed properly leading to the development of dry rot, leading to the balcony becoming structurally compromised. Overwhelming evidence points to dry rot as the cause of the collapse, and not the weight of the 13 students on it at the time.
The New York Times publishes an article reporting the deaths and suggesting the deceased are to blame for the collapse. The paper states that Irish students coming to the U.S. on J-1 visas are an “embarrassment to Ireland.” Taoiseach Enda Kenny and former President Mary McAleese criticise the newspaper for “being insensitive and inaccurate” in its handling of the story. The newspaper subsequently apologizes, although the article remains available at its website.
Alameda County prosecutors open up a criminal investigation on the accident on June 25. They state that involuntary manslaughter charges could be filed. Berkeley District Attorney Nancy O’Malley denies that pressure from the Irish community have led to the collapse inquiry.
On July 3, 2015, the Alameda County Superior Court rejects a restraining order bid against the examination of evidence by construction company Segue Builders. D.A. O’Malley had argued that the granting of a restraining order would amount to an interference in her duty to investigate the tragedy.
In December 2015, a court is told that the collapse happened because contractors cut corners to save costs. It is alleged that Greystar, the management company for the building, ignored a “red flag” when students who rented the apartment complained about the presence of mushrooms growing on the balcony. Legal cases by some of the victims are set to be combined and heard together sometime in 2016.
A joint funeral service for Olivia Burke and her cousin Ashley Donohoe takes place on June 20, four days after the collapse, in a church in Cotati, California. Funeral services are held in Dublin for the remaining victims.