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Aoife Beary — The Berkeley balcony collapse survivor who never stopped fighting for justice for her lost friends

The 27-year-old died in Beaumont Hospital in Dublin on Saturday reportedly after suffering a stroke

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Aoife Beary

Aoife Beary

Aoife Beary, centre, with her mother Angela and vice consul Kevin Byrne of the Irish Consulate General, giving testimony before the California State Senate in 2016. Photo: Darcy Costello

Aoife Beary, centre, with her mother Angela and vice consul Kevin Byrne of the Irish Consulate General, giving testimony before the California State Senate in 2016. Photo: Darcy Costello

The six students who lost their lives in the tragic accident, top left to bottom right: Lorcán Miller, Eoghan Culligan, Nick Schuster, Ashley Donohoe, Eimear Walsh and Olivia Burke

The six students who lost their lives in the tragic accident, top left to bottom right: Lorcán Miller, Eoghan Culligan, Nick Schuster, Ashley Donohoe, Eimear Walsh and Olivia Burke

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Aoife Beary

Despite the devastating injuries she suffered, Aoife Beary never stopped fighting for her six friends who lost their lives in the Berkeley balcony tragedy.

The then 21-year-old was critically injured when the balcony she and her friends were on suddenly collapsed on the evening of June 16, 2015.

She was not initially expected to pull through.

However, in testament to her courage, determination and devotion to her friends, just 14 months later, she delivered heartfelt testimony to lawmakers in California that proved instrumental in securing greater oversight of the construction industry – legislation that had previously failed after lobbying from that same industry.

That fateful night in 2015 was a tragedy of unthinkable proportions. Five young Irish students – Olivia Burke, Eoghan Culligan, Nick Schuster, Lorcán Miller and Eimear Walsh, all aged 21 – and Olivia’s Irish-American cousin Ashley Donohoe (22) all lost their lives.

The seven survivors  Aoife, Clodagh Cogley, Jack Halpin, Hannah Waters, Niall Murray and Sean Fahey, all aged 21, and Conor Flynn (22) – were left with life-changing injuries.

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Police officers who arrived on the scene at the Library Gardens apartments in the immediate aftermath were met with a scene of carnage.

Just moments earlier, the youngsters, many of whom had travelled to Berkeley on that Irish student rite of passage, the J1 visa, had been celebrating Aoife’s 21st birthday in the apartment 40 feet above.

Survivor Niall Murray recalled how the friends had been joking and laughing as Aoife got her mandatory 21 kisses. Moments later, he heard a “big rumble” and the balcony collapsed.

In an instant, six lives were snuffed out while those who survived were left with catastrophic injuries.

In her powerful testimony to the California state legislature in 2016, Aoife spoke for her friends who no longer had a voice of their own.

“I am a survivor of the Berkeley balcony collapse that happened at my 21st birthday party,” she began.

“My friends and I were so looking forward to our summer in Berkeley. We had already travelled a lot and spent our summers in Vancouver, Thailand and Vietnam since we started college.

“I could never have imagined how it would have ended,” she said, breaking down.

“I miss my friends so much,” she went on. “We had grown up together and now my birthday will always be their anniversary."

She listed the catalogue of injuries she had suffered – a traumatic brain injury, broken arms, hands, pelvis and jaw – along with the loss of some teeth lacerations to the liver, kidney and spleen, a collapsed lung and broken ribs. She had to undergo open heart surgery.

“None of this needed to happen,” she said. “Some of my injuries will be with me for the rest of my life. I have lost a lot of my independence.”

At the time of the tragedy she had been studying for a degree in pharmacology at UCD. “My career goals have been stopped. I couldn’t finish my final year and my college degree as I have been unable to return to college. My life has been changed forever,” she said. “I cannot believe you are even debating this bill.

"People died. You should make sure that balconies are scrutinised in this state to prevent this happening again.”

Aoife’s mother Angela told lawmakers
how the parents had hugged and kissed their children goodbye at Dublin Airport and “gave them the usual last-minute advice and warnings and we sent them on their way, full of laughter, smiles and excitement”. “Many of them never came home.”

Jackie Donohoe, whose daughter and niece died in the tragedy, testified: “That balcony should have not went down. My daughter and the rest of these kids should be alive today.” As Senator Jerry Hill recounted after Aoife’s testimony, there “wasn’t a dry eye in the house”. Her words were instrumental in getting the bill he had put forward past the California Assembly Appropriations Committee.

“I don’t think (the members of the committee) were quite ready for that.

"I mean we notified the chair about the testimony, but I don’t think they were ready for just how powerful it was.

“It has passed mainly because of the testimony of Aoife and her mother.

“There was also the powerful testimony of Jackie Donohoe,” Senator Hill said.

An investigation found that “poor workmanship” in the waterproofing of the balcony had resulted in water damage that caused it to rot and eventually collapse.

It also emerged after the tragedy that Segue Construction, the California firm that built the Library Gardens apartment block at 2020 Kittredge Street where the accident happened in June 2015, had paid out €23m to settle legal actions relating to construction defects over the previous three years. 

However, it was not required to disclose these to the state licence board.

The bill to change this proved to be a legacy of the Berkeley disaster, although it came at too high a price.

Following her testimony, Aoife began the long and painful process of rebuilding her life.

In 2016, she was awarded at degree in pharmacology from UCD and, in recent years, she had continued her studies, this time at Oxford Brookes University in England.

Her death at Beaumont Hospital on Saturday at the age of just 27, after reportedly suffering a stroke, is yet another young life lost too soon.

 


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