Berkeley collapse balcony only designed as decorative feature: Mayor of Californian city says 'wood had not been sealed properly'
The balcony which collapsed in Berkelely, California, causing the deaths of six Irish students was only originally included in the San Francisco building design as a decorative feature, it has emerged
The balconies became the focus of a planning wrangle a decade ago between the City of Berkeley Design Review Committee and the developers, Segue Ltd.
A February 21, 2002, briefing memo about the building revealed City of Berkeley planners insisted they "need sample of balcony material" and that they would "prefer a lighter touch for two balconies on the Kittredge side".
It was a fourth-storey balcony in the building that failed, sending six students to their deaths and leaving seven others badly injured at 12.41am last Monday.
The City of Berkeley investigation is now focused on the water-proofing of eight critical wooden structural supports for the balcony.
Mayor of Berkeley Tom Bates yesterday told reporters he believed the wood had not been sealed properly and this may have led to moisture damage.
He said that appeared to be the primary cause of the tragedy.
"More than likely, it was caused by rain and water damage that was caused to the support beams," he said.
However shortly afterwards, Mr Bates appeared to backtrack and issued a statement in which he stressed he was not qualified to make such a judgment.
"It was speculation on my part about possible water damage to the wood supports for the balcony.
"That is not an official conclusion. I am not a structural engineer and am not qualified to make a judgment," he added.
Both San Francisco civil engineers and Library Gardens complex residents yesterday said dry rot was feared to have degraded the timber supports.
Berkeley officials are also examining resident complaints of flooding in February 2013.
The balconies were initially intended to be decorative when the plans for the complex were submitted for approval a decade ago.
Former Berkeley Design Review Committee official Carrie Olson, who abstained from the approval vote, said the balconies were for decorative rather than practical purposes.
"(They were) definitely not large enough to be what the city would call an 'open-space balcony', where groups of people could stand outside," she said.
Under a 57-page California planning regulation dating from 1998 and applied to the complex, it emerged the balconies were simply required to have a structural capacity to handle 28kg (60lbs) per square foot.
City official Matthai Chakko said the investigation into the tragedy was accelerating.
The City of Berkeley later confirmed a second balcony at the Library Gardens complex had now been found to be structurally unsafe and was a "collapse hazard".
BlackRock Ltd, which serves as the investment adviser for a real estate fund which owns Library Gardens, said that it was "terribly saddened by the tragic incident" and that it was in contact with the building's management company and an independent structural engineer.
A family that suffered two deaths in the tragedy will hold a joint funeral for cousins Olivia Burke and Ashley Donohue.
Dublin student Olivia (21) and her cousin and friend Irish-American citizen Ashley (22) were both killed as a result of the balcony collapse in the early hours of Tuesday morning which left six young people dead and seven more injured.
Their families will travel to Ashley's native Rohnert Park, California for a funeral for the two cousins, before Olivia is brought home to Ireland.
Fr Aidan McAleenan who lives in the San Francisco area, but is originally from Co Down, said the grieving families who arrived in Berkeley are 'just putting one foot in front of the other'.
The Irish Immigration Pastoral Centre in San Francisco has set up an online account to raise funds for the students affected by this tragedy and to assist the immediate needs of their families.
"Everybody has just wrapped their arms around the families," Fr McAleenan told Newstalk Breakfast.
"When they got here, they were just exhausted. They're just walking here, just putting one foot in front of the other.
"But the over-riding question was when do they get to see their children, they want to go home at the weekend, so they have to work out those details.
"The families will get to see their children in the morning and then they'll take them home Sunday or Monday, Monday at the latest.
"The two cousins Olivia and Ashley will have a joint funeral in Rohnert Park, it's about an hour and a half north of San Francisco.
"They will have a joint funeral there and then the young woman will be buried, and then they'll bring the Irish woman home to Dublin and she will be buried in Dublin."
Two of the victims of the J1 student tragedy in California continue to fight for their lives in hospital.
Members of the local Irish-American community are providing support and transport to the families as they seek to come to terms with the trauma of the accident, which claimed the lives of six students and left another seven seriously injured.
Irish Consul to San Francisco Philip Grant is helping the families as they met with the Alameda County Coroner to prepare for the heart-breaking journey home with the bodies of their children in the coming days.
A memorial service has been held overnight at Oakland Cathedral in California for the six who died: Ashley and Olivia, Eimear Walsh, Eoghan Culligan, Niccolai Schuster and Lorcan Miller.
Father McAleenan told more than 300 who attended: "Today the whole of Ireland embraces these families."
Seven students are still being treated in hospitals. Aoife Beary from Blackrock, Dublin, and Hannah Waters from Castleknock, Dublin, are both in a critical condition. Their parents have been by their bedsides at Oakland Hospital since arriving on Tuesday.
A candle lit vigil organised by J1 students, who had been living in the apartment block, has also been taking place this morning.
Source Irish Independent