Cousin ‘twins’ in Berkeley balcony tragedy were ‘found embracing’

Mourners bring the coffins into the church
Mourners bring the coffins into the church

Two cousins who were among the victims killed when a balcony collapsed in Berkeley, California, have been remembered as kind, fun-loving young women who shared a bond of twins even though they grew up an ocean apart - one in California and the other in Ireland.

Ashley Donohoe, of Rhonert Park, California, and her cousin Olivia Burke from Dublin, were mourned at a mass as a bagpipe player led a brief procession of family and friends carrying the coffins into St Joseph Catholic Church in Cotati, where many present at the packed churched wiped away tears.

Wreaths of white flowers and green ribbons decorated the church.

The Rev Daniel Whelton said that growing up, the girls would dress alike to try to fool their parents into thinking they were twins.

When Ms Burke turned 18, Ms Donohoe travelled to Ireland and surprised her. Ms Burke often travelled to California to spend time with her cousin, said Mr Whelton, who led the mass at the same church where Ms Donohoe was baptised.

"Growing up, they would dress alike and they would try to fool their parents into thinking they were twins," Mr Whelton said with those in attendance breaking into laughter.

Mr Whelton said Ms Donohoe's mother told him the two were embracing when they died.

"In life they were together and in death they are together," Mr Whelton said.

At a less sombre celebration of the women's lives at Sonoma State University, where Ms Donohoe was studying biology, two giant screens projected photographs of the cousins hugging, dressing up and making funny faces.

Ms Donohoe's sister, Amanda Donohoe, said her sister travelled at least 22 times to Ireland to spend time with her cousin.

"Although their lives were really short and ended in a tragic way, they still led full lives with the short time they did have," Amanda Donohoe said.

"None of us will ever forget them," she added.

The two cousins were among the six people killed on Tuesday when the balcony snapped off the fifth floor of a Berkeley apartment building during a birthday party, tossing 13 people to the street 50 feet below. Seven people are being treated in hospitals.

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."