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Tragic homecoming: Grief at return of Berkeley loved ones

By Nicola Anderson

Published 22/06/2015

Mourners weep as the coffins of cousins Olivia Burke and Ashley Donohoe are placed in hearses at St Joseph’s Catholic Church in Cotati, California
Mourners weep as the coffins of cousins Olivia Burke and Ashley Donohoe are placed in hearses at St Joseph’s Catholic Church in Cotati, California
The bodies of four of the Irish students arrive home at Dublin Airport yesterday
Parents George and Jackie Donohoe with their daughter Amanda Donohoe pray
Locan Miller
Eimear Walsh
Eoghan Culligan
Nick Schuster
Olivia Burke

It was in very different circumstances that they had last gathered together at Dublin airport.

The contagious excitement and exuberance of the youngsters would have swept away the niggling trepidation in the hearts of their parents as they waved them off.

This was to have been the adventure of a lifetime and it would be embraced by all.

Never could a homecoming as tragic and as sorrowful as this have been envisioned, as a few scant weeks later, the same families gathered again at Dublin Airport to take their children home.

This time, they carried with them a burden of insurmountable grief.

As the remains of four of the students killed in the balcony collapse in Berkeley, California, arrived back on Irish soil, a blanket of sadness seemed to envelope the airport and its surroundings.

The coffins that held the remains of Niccolai Schuster, Lorcan Miller, Eoghan Culligan and Eimear Walsh were brought home, accompanied by their grieving relatives, on board Aer Lingus flight EI 146, direct from San Francisco.

Olivia Burke's family will return to Ireland today, accompanying her remains.

In a fitting and oddly reassuring coincidence, the plane was named for St Columba - also the name of the church in Oakland, California, where a joint service was held for the students before the remains left for Ireland.

Father Des Doyle, chaplain of the Dublin Airport church, was on hand to preside over a brief prayer service shortly after arrival.

All took place with the privacy and respect requested by the family and the authorities had worked well to ensure a seamless transfer.

A group of around a dozen young male students - friends of the deceased - had gathered at the Collinstown VIP suite in Dublin airport in a sign of respect and support.

A Garda escort then led a cortege of three hearses from Dublin airport onto the M50, with gardai in black gloves directing traffic.

In a deeply poignant and dignified tribute to the deceased, gardai posted at roundabouts formally saluted the remains as they passed.

There was a delay before the hearse containing the coffin of Niccolai Schuster set off from the airport shortly after 12.30pm, accompanied by four garda outriders, with the remains again solemnly saluted by gardai along the route.

In a moving statement issued before they departed for Ireland, the families thanked the students who were in the apartment and apartment complex that fatal night.

"The manner and speed at which they reached out to our families, to our Consul, and to each other was faultless," they said.

"Our children were extraordinarily blessed in their friends and we are enormously proud of them.

"As we leave Berkeley and return home to Ireland with our beloved sons and daughters we would like to thank everyone in America and Ireland for their sympathy and support, which has been a tremendous comfort to us at this tragic time."

A funeral service held for cousins Olivia Burke and Ashley Donohoe heard how, just as they had been inseparable in life, they were also inseparable in death. Monsignor Dan Whelton told the funeral for both girls in St Joseph's Catholic Church in Cotati of the moment Ashley Donohoe's mother, Jackie, saw her daughter's body next to Olivia Burke's.

After receiving the tragic news, the devastated mother had rushed from her home north-west of Berkeley to the scene at Kittredge Street.

"She went down to Berkeley and as she saw the bodies they were holding each other," said Msgr Whelton.

"They weren't twins but they were very close. Ashley went back and forward to Ireland and in life they were like twins and in death they are together too."

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