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Heartbreaking scenes as bodies of Berkeley pals arrive home

Heartbreaking scenes as bodies of Berkeley pals arrive home

IT’S the longest day of a summer that promised so much.

But instead the families of four of the Irish students who died in the Berkeley tragedy flew through the night into the morning of June 21 to bring their children on a final journey home.

They will arrive back on Irish soil today.

Last night the caskets of Niccolai Schuster, Eimear Walsh, Lorcán Miller and Eoghan Culligan, all aged 21 and from south Dublin, left San Francisco aboard an Aer Lingus flight EI 146 direct to Dublin.

For the national airline, which was heaped with praise for its support of the bereaved this week, it was its heaviest load.

Also on the flight, due in at 11.35am today, were family members who earlier this week made the anguished trip across the Atlantic, where they joined students and the Irish community in keeping vigil.

This week they will bury their children at churches across south Dublin.

Yesterday a joint funeral service was held for the other two victims, Olivia Burke (21) and her cousin Ashley Donohoe (22). A lone piper played ‘She Moved Through The

Fair’as the coffins and grieving families filed into the packed church. In an emotional statement last night, the families vowed to ensure this tragedy would never happen to another family. “The family want everyone to know  and understand that Ashley and Olivia were two intelligent, talented,  and hard working women.

They had bright futures ahead of them . We will fight to make changes so that no family will ever have to go  through what we have been through for the past five days which has changed our lives forever.

Our daughters and the rest of the students  were responsible young adults  who were celebrating  their friend’s 21st birthday  in what they felt was a safe environment. Unfortunately that turned  to tragedy through no fault of their own.”

Celebrant Monseignor Dan Whelton spoke of the great friendship enjoyed by the two. “They were very close to each other and their families were very close too,” he said.“Did death come too early?

Absolutely, and out of the natural order and nature of things. But it has happened.” He added that Ashley’s mother Jackie told him when she got to see the bodies they were holding each other.

“They were together in life and they were together in death too,” she told him.  

He told how Ashley travelled all the way from California to surprise Olivia on her 18th birthday.He added that Olivia’s brother Gavin had told him his sister was “a kind, caring person,fun loving with a great smile”. 

An Irish-American, whose parents are Irish, Ashley was buried in her home town Rohnert Park in Sonoma County, north of San Francisco.

Olivia’s family are due to leave for Ireland with her remains later today aboard another Aer Lingus flight.

Hundreds of people attended the vigil at St Columba’s Church in the city of Oakland, including Minister of State for the Diaspora Jimmy Deenihan.

Also present were the Irish Ambassador to the United States Anne Anderson, Mayor of Berkeley Tom Bates and his wife, State Senator Lonnie Hancock,

Police Chief Michael Meehan, and Fire Chief Gil Dong offered condolences and continuing support to the bereaved families. Members of the police and fire department who attended the horrific accident also came to pay their respects.

“Our officers have never seen anything like this in their careers. Hopefully they never will again. It was horrific,” said Chief Meehan.

“Their job was to make people were as safe as they could as quickly as they could, but I can tell you that even days later, they’re deeply affected by it,” he added.

The families of the deceased students had wanted to allow those among the 300 J1 visa students in California to attend the vigil, while in Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin  celebrated a special Mass at the Pro Cathedral in Dublin yesterday evening.

“I have never seen such an outpouring of genuine sympathy and grief from the whole country. The six who are dead have become the children of Ireland. They have now become symbols of our country.”

At a service in Dublin’s Pro Cathedral last night, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said: “These men and women were the products of what is best in Irish families. There are moments in which prayer becomes almost a natural response in the face of the inexplicable.” 

Meanwhile two of the seven students injured in the tragic accident remain in a critical condition in hospital.

He also spoke to 22-year-old student Conor Flynn in John Muir Hospital near Berkeley, who is “positive” about his chances of recovery.

The other injured are Niall Murray (21), from Rathfarnham, Sean Fahey (21), from Rathmines, Clodagh Cogley (21), Clonskeagh, Aoife Beary from Blackrock, whose 21st party the group were celebrating at the time of the tragedy, and 21 year-old Hannah Waters from Castleknock.

The balcony collapsed from the fifth floor of an apartment building, hurling 13 people to the street 50feet below.

Investigations are continuing into why the fourth-floor balcony collapsed at the apartment block in central Berkeley.

Engineers have said water damage to supporting wooden beams may have caused the structure to give way.

Chief Meehan spoke well of the Irish students who have arrived in his city as part of the J1 work visa program

“They’re very well behaved and while they certainly enjoy themselves, they’re low key, and they don’t cause us any problems,” he said.

“The police and fire fighters, as representatives of the Berkeley community, we really have just tried to wrap our arms around the families and the friends to just ease their burden.”