Mass Photo Sinead Loftus
A vigil for the victims of Tuesday’s balcony collapse was held in Berkeley’s Civic Center Park on Wednesday.  Photo Sinead Loftus

By Emily Dugdale and Tracey Taylor

On Wednesday evening, friends, family members and others who simply wanted to show their respect gathered in a park in Berkeley and a cathedral in Oakland to mourn the deaths of six young students who died after a balcony collapsed at Berkeley’s Library Gardens apartment building in the early hours of Tuesday morning.

At the Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland, Reverend Jay Matthews, rector of the cathedral, led an hour-long service that included a homily by Father Aidan McAleenan, an Irish pastor at the Saint Columba Catholic Church in Oakland.

Read complete balcony collapse coverage on Berkeleyside.

Guests filed slowly into the large cathedral, dipping their fingers into the holy water and crossing themselves with eyes cast down. Most sat quietly, or hugged fellow churchgoers, both Irish and American, as they reflected on the tragedy that unfolded early Tuesday morning.

Oakland’s Cathedral of Christ the Light was about half full Wednesday as mourners gathered to remember the victims of Tuesday’s balcony collapse. Photo: Emily Dugdale

At Civic Center Park, just a block from where the tragedy occurred, several hundred people gathered for a candlelit vigil. They brought photographs of the victims and notes as well as candles, and cried and hugged each other.

Just after 9 p.m. the crowd formed a large, silent circle and a priest offered prayers and read passages from the Bible. Philip Grant, Ireland’s consul general in San Francisco, who was in attendance, estimated that 80% of the Irish students in the Bay Area on J-1 work-study visas were at the vigil, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

After the service at the park, many of the participants walked to the Kittredge Street site of the collapse and added candles and notes to the makeshift flower and memento shrines that have been growing in scale since Tuesday’s accident.

The vigil at Civic Center Park in Berkeley on Wednesday. Photo: Suzanne Yada
Mourners lit candles and shared photos and notes about the balcony collapse victims at Berkeley’s Civic Center Park on Wednesday. Photo: courtesy Irish Consulate of the Western United States

The six who died were Ashley Donohoe, 22, from Rohnert Park; and Olivia Burke, Eimear Walsh, Eoghan Culligan, Niccolai Schuster and Lorcán Miller, all 21 years old and from Ireland. Seven more were seriously injured and are being treated at two local trauma hospitals: Highland in Oakland and John Muir in Walnut Creek.

“Please know how much we share your sorrow,” Rev. Matthews said to the crowd of mourners that took up about half of the pews in the brightly lit Oakland cathedral.

A series of solemn readings followed the opening statement, drawing from verses dealing with loss, triumph and human will from the books of Job, John and Romans.

A man prays at the memorial service for the victims of Tuesday’s balcony collapse in Berkeley. Photo: Emily Dugdale

Father McAleenan, a J-1 visa student himself years ago, took to the podium late in the service and spoke of the utter excitement of coming to the United States as a young Irish person. “Coming to America on the J-1 visa program is very exciting, especially if you’ve never gone out of Ireland.”

Commenting on the “dark journey” that families faced Wednesday traveling to see their deceased or injured children, Father McAleenan remarked that, “the worst thing that can happen is the loss of a child.”

“Their parents loved them,” he said. “We might want to lash out… but all we can do is to pray, to love, and to care for [each other].”

The program from Wednesday’s mass. Photo: Emily Dugdale

“At the end of the day, they just want to see their loved ones.”

He spoke at great length of the “community-oriented” nature of the Irish people. “You put yourself in their position — your child or family instead,” he said. “Today, all of Ireland embraces these families and young people.”

After the Lord’s Prayer, almost all of the congregation lined up to receive communion or a blessing. Shortly after, the somber notes of a bagpipe signaled the end of the mass, and a procession of priests and participants filed out into an adjacent courtyard.

Twenty-year-old Dublin native Shaday Bates attended the mass with friend and fellow Irishwoman Shauna O’Brien, also 20. The pair lived underneath the apartment where the balcony collapsed, and said that on that fateful night, they heard the loud boom of the structure plunging down but passed it off as “gunshots, or a bomb.”

It was not until about 5:30 a.m. when a friend knocked on their door to alert them to messages from their families that they realized what the sound had been.”Our families were panicking,” said O’Brien. “Everyone needs to be there for these families now.”

While the two women did not know the victims personally, they spoke of Berkeley as “one big Irish family.”

“At the end of the day, it could have happened to any of us,” Bates said.

Families of the victims were not present at the mass, Father McAleenan clarified after the ceremony. “They arrived to Berkeley around 5:30 and were just exhausted and devastated,” he said.

The vigil at Berkeley’s Civic Center Park. Photo: Steven Hughes

McAleenan has visited some of the injured students in hospitals across the Bay Area, and he reported that doctors have said the students are “young and vibrant — they’ll be able to bounce back.”

Surviving students of the fatal accident, McAleenan said, were clearly “traumatized,” however. In terms of processing what happened, “we have all of the people available to them, but they haven’t availed themselves [as of] yet.”

The bodies of the students who died will be flown home to Ireland no later than Monday, he confirmed.

Firm that built Berkeley complex has been fined, sued (06.18.15)
Support springs up for families, friends of deceased (06.17.15)
As Berkeley orders removal of second balcony, questions over quality of construction (06.17.15)
Berkeley building under scrutiny before balcony collapse (06.17.15)
Mayor, consul general, lay wreaths to honor 6 killed in Berkeley balcony collapse (06.16.15)
Six who died in Berkeley: Young students in their prime (06.16.15)
Six students killed in Berkeley balcony collapse identified (06.16.15)
Berkeley orders balcony removal after tragedy kills 6 (06.16.15)
Berkeley balcony collapse leaves 6 students dead (06.16.15)

Emily Dugdale, a graduate of Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, is a summer intern at Berkeleyside.

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