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Families pay tribute to friends


Members of the public sign a book of condolence at the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin's city centre

Members of the public sign a book of condolence at the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin's city centre

Members of the public sign a book of condolence at the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin's city centre

The families of Irish students killed in a balcony collapse in the United States have said the response of their friends to the tragedy is a testament to the bonds between them.

As they began the long and difficult journey of repatriating the bodies, the parents and relatives said their children were blessed with their friends.

The victims, five from Ireland and one from California, plunged to their deaths while celebrating a 21st birthday party early last Tuesday.

They were Ashley Donohoe, 22, an Irish-American from Rohnert Park, a city north of San Francisco, and her 21-year-old cousin Olivia Burke, from Foxrock, south Dublin.

A joint funeral was held in St Columba's in Oakland for them before Ms Burke's body is brought home.

The bodies of the other four arrive in Dublin today - medicine students at University College Dublin Lorcan Miller and Eimear Walsh; Niccolai Schuster, who studied arts at the same college and his friend from school days Eoghan Culligan.

Their families issued a statement of thanks to all those who supported them in the last week in the US and Ireland, but they also appealed for privacy as they return home.

"As we leave Berkeley and return home to Ireland with our beloved sons and daughters, Eimear, Eoghan, Lorcan and Niccolai, 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," they said.

"Particularly we thank the local authorities, emergency services, medical staff, parishes and communities of Berkeley.

"In addition we are forever grateful to the Irish consul, Philip Grant, and his local team, and also the amazing service and support received from Aer Lingus, the Department of Foreign Affairs, US ambassador Anne Anderson, and a special appreciation to minister (Jimmy) Deenihan.

"We cannot thank enough the students that were in the apartment and apartment complex that night.

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

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

"The sympathy and responses of friends of our sons and daughters, the wider group of students on J1 visas and the program's sponsoring agencies (USIT, SAYIT, CIEE and InterExchange) is a testament to their popularity, and to the closeness of these groups from school and university.

"The Irish communities of the Bay Area - co-ordinated by Fr Brendan McBride, Fr Aidan McAleenan, Celine Kennelly and their colleagues at the Irish Immigration and Pastoral Centre - have been a constant source of support and comfort.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with the Donohue family and Ashley, who was laid to rest today in Sonoma, and with Aoife, Clodagh, Connor, Hannah, Jack, Sean and Niall who remain in hospital and with their families, we wish them a speedy recovery.

"We very much appreciate the support and sympathy that has been expressed, but now we ask for privacy so that we can mourn the sudden and tragic passing of our beloved sons and daughters, with the dignity that they deserve."

Investigations into the cause of the balcony collapse from the fifth storey of the Library Gardens complex in Berkeley are continuing. Rotted wooden beams are the likely cause, the local mayor Tom Bates said.

The dead were all 21 and in the US on J1 working visas for the summer and were among 40 people attending the birthday party.

Another balcony at the apartment complex has since been deemed "structurally unsafe" and a "collapse hazard". The owners have been ordered to demolish it. Two other balconies were sealed off or "red-tagged" as tests continue.

Segue Construction, which built the complex, said it will co-operate fully with any inquiry.

"Our hearts go out to the families and loved ones of the young people who died or were injured in this tragic accident," a spokesman said. "We have offered our assistance and full co-operation to investigating authorities."