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Higgins makes balcony tragedy plea


Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan confirmed several young Irish citizens had died in the California balcony collapse

Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan confirmed several young Irish citizens had died in the California balcony collapse

Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan confirmed several young Irish citizens had died in the California balcony collapse

Michael D Higgins has urged communities to send love to those grieving the lives of six students killed in a balcony collapse in the US.

After candlelit vigils in California the head of state signed a book of condolence in the Mansion House in Dublin where he expressed the emotions being felt.

"I think the fact that so many young people were lost in a single terrible event has deeply affected people," Mr Higgins said.

"Many I noted in their comments were almost unable to speak at the enormity of the tragedy, that it is of young people seeking adventure, the spring of a new life, what a terrible impact it must be on their families."

Rotted wooden beams are the likely cause of the accident on the fifth storey of the Library Gardens complex in the college city of Berkeley, the local mayor Tom Bates signalled yesterday.

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

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.

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A joint funeral is planned for the cousins in California before Ms Burke is brought home.

Ms Burke, who studied at Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology, was friends with another victim, Eimear Walsh, from their school days in Loreto College Foxrock and they lived in the same area.

Ms Walsh studied medicine at University College Dublin (UCD), as did Lorcan Miller, also from south Dublin, who was described by former teachers at St Andrew's College Booterstown as an exceptional person and perfectly suited to his chosen career as a doctor.

Niccolai Schuster, from Terenure, was also at UCD and studying history and politics.

He went to school with another of the victims, Eoghan Culligan, a student at Dublin Institute of Technology and a passionate gaelic footballer who was fondly remembered at St Mary's College in Rathmines.

They were all 21 and in the US on J1 working visas for the summer and were among 40 people attending the party in the early hours of Tuesday.

Other funerals are not expected until after repatriation of the dead begins, possibly on Sunday or Monday.

A number of books of condolence have been opened in Ireland while prayer services are being held in schools, colleges and churches where the dead were known.

Mr Higgins added: "My wish now is that the practical matters, that those who are grieving will need, can be met and will be.

"It's a time for the community to have a sense of sending their love to all of those who have been asked to bear a burden that no parent would want to ever carry or that loved ones would want to carry.

"Of course there's the great bonds of friendship, as I know so well, among young people of that age, that's why I think we are grieving for those who have lost but also the great concern for those who are very seriously injured and then those as well who are quite traumatised - why wouldn't they be after what happened to those they loved and regarded as friends."

Hundreds of students, friends and relatives of those killed or injured in the accident attended an emotional candlelit vigil last night just one block from where the tragedy struck.

A park bench became the focal point for the memorial, prayers and an outpouring of grief at Martin Luther King Jr Civic Centre Park.

A deep feeling of solidarity with those affected by the tragedy was demonstrated by the attendance of hundreds of other students who had no connection to the dead and injured other than to be in the San Francisco Bay area for the summer.

A special mass was held around the same time at Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland led by Bishop of Oakland, California Michael Barber.

As investigations are ongoing into the cause of the sudden balcony collapse the City of Berkeley released reams of documents on the planning and design of the building which was completed in early 2007.

The mayor said it was his view that rain and water damage made the beams holding the balcony unstable.

Mr Bates said it was "obviously a bad idea" for 13 people to be on the fourth floor balcony at one time but stressed he was not blaming the victims.

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.

Jimmy Deenihan, the minister responsible for diaspora affairs, was sent to San Francisco in a sign of solidarity and to give first hand support to the grieving families.

He will meet Irish community representatives, local US authorities and all those who assisted grieving families and friends later to thank them for their work.

"The tragic loss of six young lives at the beginning of a summer in California which should have been filled with new experiences, new opportunities and new friends, is simply heart breaking," he said.

"At this profoundly difficult time, on behalf of the Government, I want to stand with our young J1 community in Berkeley and express solidarity with the families of the bereaved, the injured and all those affected by this terrible tragedy."

Several books of condolences have already been filled by people at St Mary's College and also in Foxrock.

US ambassador to Ireland Kevin O'Malley wrote a letter to all Irish students on J1 visas encouraging them to stay on and finish their summer working overseas.

"This is a devastating experience for everyone involved," he said.

"Even as we all grieve this terrible loss, we here at the US Embassy would encourage you to remain strong and draw upon the deep well of strength that the Irish are known for around the world.

"There will be times in your life where you're challenged, when tragedy strikes and you're left to pick up the pieces. In these moments, it becomes even more important to join together with friends and find strength in supporting one another."

Mr O'Malley told students to take comfort from unwavering US support for Ireland and to stay on in America for the rest of the summer.

"In doing so, you send a powerful signal to the world of the Irish capacity to overcome tragedy with grace and perseverance," he said.

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