Berkeley balcony collapse: Newry father whose son died in US hit-and-run offers to repatriate victims
The Co Down father of a young man killed in a hit-and-run in New York has offered to cover the cost of repatriating the Irish students killed in the Berkeley balcony collapse.
Colin Bell, and his wife Eithne, from Newry have been helping other families repatriate the remains of their loved ones for more than two years following the tragic death of their son Kevin (26) in New York City in 2013.
No one has ever been charged with the death of their son, who was killed after he was hit by two vehicles.
Colin and Eithne manage the Kevin Bell Repatriation Trust and told RTE’s Liveline they had contacted the Republic's Department of Foreign Affairs to “tell the families that the funds are there to bring their children home.”
“When Kevin was killed, the people of Newry helped to raise a massive amount of money to him bring him home. We’ve been using it to help other families whose love ones have also died abroad,” said Mr Bell, who was speaking on the second anniversary of his son's death.
“The funds are available to help these families, and since Kevin’s death two years ago, we’ve brought 70 people home.”
The average cost of repatriating a body is about €5,900 said Mr Bell, but the further away the location, the more expensive it is.
“As we said at the time, with so many young people now abroad, Kevin's death would not be the last.”
Speaking about his son’s death, Mr Bell said he still felt the pain of his loss, adding “we know exactly what [these] parents are going through."
“Any time we hear of someone young dying abroad, it brings it back every time.
“At this stage, we’re not concerned with who did it, or getting justice. We just want to move on from it.”
The Kevin Bell Repatriation Trust offers financial assistance to bereaved families to repatriate the body of loved ones who die abroad in sudden or tragic circumstances.
Those interested in donating to the trust, can visit here.
Kevin Bell moved to New York to find work, but 10 months later he was knocked down and killed, leaving his family in Newry facing a bill of thousands of pounds to bring him home.
Thanks to a massive fundraising effort by people in the city these costs were not only met, but exceeded to the tune of £140,000.
This led to the family forming the Kevin Bell Repatriation Trust so they could help alleviate the stress and grief of other families in a similar situation.
No one has ever been charged with the death.
Probe into tragedy begins in California
Investigators in Berkeley, California have begun trying to pinpoint the cause of a balcony collapse that left six Irish students dead and seven seriously injured.
The accident happened early on Tuesday, during a 21st birthday party involving a group of young Irish and Irish-American men and women spending the summer in the US.
"My heart breaks for the parents," Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny said from Dublin.
The small fifth-floor balcony was crammed with 13 people when it broke loose from an apartment building, dumping party goers about 50 feet onto the pavement.
At least one engineer said the balcony may have been overloaded.
Five 21-year-old students from Ireland were killed, along with a young woman from California.
Meanwhile, memorials took shape on the ground below the fallen balcony, with people leaving flowers, a pack of cigarettes, a photo, condolence notes and an Irish flag.
The Irish students were in the country on what are known as J1 visas, which enable young people to work and travel in the US over the summer.
The San Francisco Bay Area is especially popular with Irish students, about 700 of whom are working and playing here this summer, according to the consul general. Many work at Fisherman's Wharf and other tourist sites.
"For many of my countrymen, this is a favourite experience, and to have this happen at the start of the season has left us frozen in shock," said Philip Grant, Ireland's San Francisco-based consul general.
The dead were identified as Ashley Donohoe, 22, of Rohnert Park, California, and Olivia Burke, Eoghan Culligan, Niccolai Schuster, Lorcan Miller and Eimear Walsh, all of Ireland.
Investigators are expected to look at such things as whether the balcony was built to code, whether it was overloaded and whether rain or other weather weakened it.
Berkeley officials said the building code at the time of the apartment house's construction in 2007 required the balcony to hold at least 60 pounds per square foot. That requirement has since been raised to 100 pounds.
City spokesman Matthai Chakko said officials have not measured the balcony and how much weight it was built to bear.
Mr Chakko also said there is no city requirement to post a weight restriction for apartment balconies.
Grace Kang, a structural engineer and spokeswoman for Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research Centre at Berkeley, said the balcony looked to her to be 4x6 feet, or 24 square feet.
That would mean it should have been able to bear at least 1,440 pounds. Thirteen normal-size adults would weigh more than that.
"They were packed like sardines, and then they were moving," she said. When people are moving, it "may further exacerbate" the strain.
New York Times coverage of Berkeley tragedy 'despicable'
The New York Times has issued a statement following sharp criticism over its coverage of the tragedy in Berkeley in which six Irish students died, and another seven were injured.
The prestigious newspaper used the tragedy of a balcony collapsing to bring up negative stories about J1 students in the past.
"They come by the thousands — Irish students on work visas, many flocking to the West Coast to work in summer jobs by day and to enjoy the often raucous life in a college town at night," it begins.
"It was, for many, a rite of passage, one last summer to enjoy travel abroad before beginning a career."
The NYT - regarded as one of the world's most-prestigious papers - then displayed an incredible lack of compassion, adding that the work-visa programme used by Irish students has “become not just a source of aspiration, but also a source of embarrassment for Ireland, marked by a series of high-profile episodes involving drunken partying and the wrecking of apartments in places like San Francisco and Santa Barbara”.
The Republic's Equality Minister Aodhán Ó Ríordáin has branded the article a "disgrace" in a tweet sent to the paper, and the article has created a storm on social media with some users describing it as “crass” and “insensitive”.
The New York Times has responded to the criticism. Public editor Margaret Sullivan offered her "sincere sympathy" to all those affected by the tragedy. Public editor Margaret Sullivan offered her "sincere sympathy" to all those affected by the tragedy. She added: "Please know that I am aware of reaction and will look into it today".
NYT Vice President Eileen Murphy said: "We understand and agree that some of the language in the piece could be interpreted as insensitive, particularly in such close proximity to this tragedy."
But Renua Leader Lucinda Creighton has said that the New York Times should apologise for and withdraw their grotesque article on the Berkeley tragedy.
“It is truly ghoulish that at a time where sensitivity is required in dealing with the utterly sad plight of families which have to deal with the death of young children that the New York Times, a supposedly reputable media outlet would launch such a facile assault upon the character and activities of young Irish students," she said.
"The despicable New York Times piece by contrast appears to have used the deaths of these young people to engage in a diatribe about young Irish people that the racists in the 19th century Punch magazine would be embarrassed by," she added.
Politicians unite to remember dead
The normal business of the Dail was suspended in one of many marks of respect for the dead in the US balcony collapse.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny led messages of condolence to the parents, families and friends of those affected by the tragedy while a minister has been dispatched to San Francisco to lead the consular response on the ground.
"We've all been shocked by the loss of life and injured," Mr Kenny said.
"It is a terrible situation to have such a serious and sad incident to take place at the beginning of a summer's activity and opportunity for so many young people on J1 visas in the US."
A team of Government officials were on hand in Dublin Airport to support relatives travelling to the US west coast while consular staff from the Irish diplomatic corps in San Francisco met them on arrival.
Jimmy Deenihan, junior minister responsible for issues relating to the Irish diaspora, has been asked to lead the response in California and liaise with families alongside local consul general Philip Grant.
Mr Kenny said he would act as a Government presence in solidarity with the affected families and the young people who remain in San Francisco.
Flags flew at half mast at Government Buildings, at University College Dublin where three of the students studied and at the US embassy in Dublin.
Books of condolence were also opened by the university, with thousands of people signing online, while other books were being opened in the Mansion House in Dublin and in Cork and Galway.
Tanaiste and Labour Party leader Joan Burton, a former J1 student, said there are no words to describe the horror of the events at Berkeley.
"A J1 is meant to be a rite of passage, an opportunity to gain valuable life and cultural experience in a country, the US, that's so dear to all of our hearts.
"It is for a lot of people the summer of love, the summer of fun, and when you see those faces today in the snapshots on social media and the newspapers I think it brings back to everybody what those days are meant to be.
"Today though six families are heartbroken. Their children are wrenched away from them in the most dreadful of circumstances."
Micheal Martin, leader of the main opposition party Fianna Fail, said everybody in Ireland was thinking of the grieving families.
"The J1 programme is essentially a programme for young people and it brings to mind opportunity, a summer of fun, a summer of happiness, new eras beckoning, relationships and so forth," he said.
"That's why it has such a resonance."
Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein president, said: " It's easy to imagine the energy, the fun and excitement at that party before the disaster.
"It's a dreadful, stark reminder of the fragility of life, of the uncertainty of life, especially when the victims are so young, so vibrant and so full of potential."
Books of condolence were also opened at St Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin and University College Cork.
Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan said concerns were also turning to the impact the trauma will have on those who survived the accident and those who witnessed it.
"We are also conscious that many Irish students were not physically injured, but were left deeply shocked and saddened by the loss of friends and classmates in this terrible accident," he said.
"The consulate has worked with local authorities in Berkeley to set up an incident centre in Berkeley, where grief counsellors will be on site and people will also have facilities to make phone calls home."
Extra diplomatic staff have been flown into San Francisco to support families while local authorities in Berkeley and Irish community organisations in the Bay area have been working together to provide transport and accommodation to those who need it.