Belfast Telegraph

Berkeley balcony collapse: Ulster student co-ordinator's key support role in wake of tragedy

By Joanne Sweeney

A Co Down woman has told how she rushed to help in the aftermath of the Berkeley balcony collapse.

Natasha McParland from Warrenpoint made her way to the scene of the tragedy at a university campus building that claimed the lives of five Irish students and an American and seriously injured seven other students.

The J1 visa student programme co-ordinator for the Irish Immigration Pastoral Centre in San Francisco arrived at the building on June 16 within an hour of the accident.

The 29-year-old said: "I've been so busy that I haven't had time to absorb what happened or to really be alone in my thoughts to think about it. It's been go, go, go.

"My parents have been worried for me. I had originally planned to leave for home on June 17. They believe I was meant to be here and I'm really glad to have been here for the students that I helped through difficult times."

Natasha was one of three people from Northern Ireland who worked in the aftermath of the tragedy. Fr Aidan McAleenan, originally from Banbridge, Co Down, provided pastoral support and opened his St Columba's church to host a vigil for four of those who died, and Sylvia McLaughlin from Coalisland, who works for the Irish Consulate in San Francisco, helped with travel arrangements for families and returning students.

She handled calls from distraught parents of students looking to know if their son or daughter had been injured, and helped organise the arrangements for the visiting families of those who died or were in hospital.

Natasha also arranged for the return of 30 Irish students who were too traumatised to continue with their trips.

She told how she was alerted to the devastating news. "I was woken up by a call from the centre's executive director Celine Kennelly who heard news reports while she was in Ireland," she said.

"When she said students in Berkeley, the first thing that came into my head was it must be my summer students, as I work directly with the students.

"When she said that five at least had been killed, it was just incomprehensible to me. I was in complete shock and not really absorbing what she was telling me."

However, Natasha packed up her laptop and drove from the Sunset area of San Francisco - the main Irish hub of the city - to Berkeley with immigrant chaplin Fr Brendan McBride from Donegal.

She praised all the students on how they dealt with the aftermath.

"They really supported each other. It was incredible to see. They were a fantastic group of young people," she said. "I really don't how this will play out. At the orientation talks I give each year, I talk about safety, and I just don't know what I can say for next year."

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