Tragic loss | 

Berkeley survivor Aoife Beary fought for justice for pals who died in balcony collapse

The 2015 Berkeley balcony tragedy claimed the lives of five Irish students and one Irish American.
Aoife Beary

Aoife Beary

Neasa Cumiskey and Breda Heffernan

The victims of the tragic Berkeley balcony collapse in 2015 are being remembered today following the death of survivor Aoife Beary.

The young woman (27), from Blackrock in Dublin, was one of twelve people standing on a fourth-floor balcony of a rented apartment when it collapsed in the early hours of June 16th, 2015.

She suffered a brain injury, broken bones, and organ lacerations as result, undergoing treatment and rehabilitation at hospitals in California and Dublin in the months after the accident.

Ms Beary passed away aged 27 in Beaumont Hospital in Dublin on New Year’s Day after suffering a stroke on Wednesday, The Irish Times reported on Sunday.

She is survived by her parents Mike and Angela, her younger brother Tim, and her younger sister Anna.

The tragedy claimed the lives of Eimear Walsh (21) from Foxrock, Lorcán Miller (21) from Shankill, Niccolai Schuster (21) from Terenure, Eoghan Culligan (21) from Rathfarnham, Olivia Burke (21) from Foxrock, and her cousin Ashley Donohoe (22) from San Francisco.

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

The Irish students had travelled to the US on J-1 working visas and were celebrating Ms Beary’s 21st birthday in the Library Gardens apartment block the night of the horrific incident.

The wooden support beams under the balcony had rotted and gave way, sending the students plummeting to the ground.

A subsequent investigation found that the balcony had been built by a firm that in the previous three years had paid out $26.5m (€23.7m) in construction defect settlements that were never reported to the California Contractors State Licensing Board.

This practice was not illegal at the time and the settlements typically involved no admission of wrongdoing by the contractors and many also included confidentiality clauses.

In 2016, Ms Beary testified before the California state legislature in an effort to change legislature and force contractors to be transparent about previous legal claims against them.

"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.

She told how her birthday will forever mark the anniversary of the death of her friends.

“I miss my friends so much - I have known them since we started school together at four years of age. We grew 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 that you are even debating this bill. People died. You should make sure that balconies are scrutinised in this state to prevent this happening again.

"Thank you for listening to me."

Aoife Beary gave testimony

Aoife Beary gave testimony

In 2018 a plaque was unveiled in Berkeley to commemorate those who had lost their lives.

"Berkeley, named after an Irish philosopher, will forever remember the six young adults from America and Ireland, guests in this city, who tragically died near this spot in a balcony collapse at 2020 Kittredge Street early in the morning of June 16, 2015,” it reads, along with the names of the six friends.

"Here, the families of those who passed and the community of Berkeley have joined hands to establish a permanent memorial,” it adds.

The plaque is topped with a James Joyce quote. ‘They lived and laughed and loved and left’.

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