Deadly balcony collapse tied to rotted wooden beams

BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) — The balcony collapse that killed six college students appears to have been caused by rotted wooden beams, Berkeley's mayor said Wednesday as the victims' heartbroken loved ones began arriving in the U.S. from Ireland.

Mayor Tom Bates said investigators believe the wood was not caulked and sealed properly at the time of construction and was damaged by moisture as a result.

The crowded fifth-floor balcony broke off an apartment building during a 21st-birthday party held by visiting Irish college students Tuesday, dumping 13 people 50 feet onto the pavement. In addition to the six killed, seven were seriously hurt.

"More than likely it was caused by rain and caused by water damage that was done to the support beams," Bates said. He said it was "obviously a bad idea" for 13 people to crowd onto such a small balcony but added that he is not blaming the victims.

Later in the day, however, the mayor said that the water-damage theory was speculation on his part and not an official conclusion, and that the investigation is still underway.

Building inspectors also determined another balcony at the Library Gardens apartment complex was "structurally unsafe and presented a collapse hazard," and it ordered it demolished.

President of the Structural Engineers Association of Northern California Darrick Hom told KTVU Wednesday that he got an up close look at the damage the day prior.

"The engineers who were examining that, that the wood at the interface between the building and where the balcony was coming off quite easily in their hands; indicates that there is a deterioration in the structural material , the wood that supports the balcony," said Hom.

Fari Barzegar is a structural engineer, professor and licensed contractor who investigates the causes of construction accidents.

"The wood gradually decays and you have dry rot until it loses its strength," said Barzegar.

Though water may seem obvious, the engineers say the protocol is to have labs examine everything relevant. That includes whether the balcony was overloaded with people, if there was significant dry rot, if there was water intrusion of even pest intrusion. Additional concerns are whether defective materials were used, the possibility of poor workmanship, building code violations or improper inspections.

"Usually it take a combination of three or four things happening simultaneously," said Hom.

In the meantime, there will be additional investigations by other government agencies, independent engineers examine evidence and verify test results, insurance companies as well as plaintiffs and defendant's lawyers.

But this is hardly the only balcony problem.

"In the past few years, in my experience we have experienced quite a number of these balcony failures. We've had a lot of experience many fatalities in balconies," said Barzegar.

Both engineers say three's such an abundance of evidence investigators can come to solid conclusions in a few weeks.

Two other balconies were red-tagged, or declared off-limits, at the apartments, which were completed in 2007 and are popular among visiting students and those at the nearby University of California, Berkeley.

Segue Construction, the Library Gardens general contractor, was involved in two San Francisco Bay Area lawsuits in recent years involving allegations of dry rot and substandard balconies at condo and apartment projects in Millbrae and San Jose. Among other things, Segue was accused of improperly waterproofing balconies.

Both cases were settled in 2013 with Segue, developers and other parties agreeing to pay millions.

Segue spokesman Sam Singer said such litigation is common on large projects and "has no bearing on the tragedy in the Berkeley."

"They are completely different projects. They are completely different types of balconies," he said. Singer said of the balcony collapse: "Segue Construction has never had an incident like this in its history."

Cassandra Bujarski, a spokeswoman for the apartments' property management firm, Greystar, had no comment.

"I'm very sad, but I'm not surprised," said Laura Gomez, who used to live in the Library Gardens apartment complex. "They rent to students, especially in the summer, and put them in a crowded apartments," she said. "And now things like this happen."

"It just breaks my heart," said Chris Hamill, who lives two blocks away. "No matter who it happens to, especially when they're young and whole life ahead. It's very tragic, she said. "So I feel this whole community is mourning right now."

A growing collection of flowers, candles, and Irish flags sit steps away from where the students died and where injured in the 5 story fall. Many of them are from Irish citizens living in or visiting the Bay Area.

"I was talking to my sister (in Ireland) this morning, and she was pretty upset," Diane King explained. "So was my mother. That's why I decided to come put flowers down."

King said many in Ireland are gutted by the tragedy.

"Because they were just having a good time...and it ended," King said about the students who died and were injured. "It's an aweful accident. It could have happened to anybody."

Across the Atlantic, flags flew at half-staff around Ireland and the country's parliament suspended normal business as the nation mourned the dead: Ashley Donohoe, 22, of Rohnert Park, California, and Olivia Burke, Eoghan Culligan, Niccolai Schuster, Lorcan Miller and Eimear Walsh, all 21-year-olds from Ireland.

"They were in the prime of their lives," said Bernadette Prendiville, principal of the high school from which Burke and Walsh graduated. "They had a successful time in school, went about their work quietly and had everything going for them, everything ahead of them."

Josh Wilson, assistant principal at Rancho Cotate High School, said Donohoe was a remarkably well-liked and cheerful young woman who returned after graduating to help coach the soccer team.

"She just always had a smile on her face and transcended peer groups and cliques and had a friend in just about every social circle," he said.

A Mass was planned for Wednesday evening in Oakland for the victims, and grieving family members made their way toward Berkeley from Ireland.

The Irish students were working and traveling in the U.S. over the summer, a rite of passage enjoyed by thousands of their countrymen.

"For many of my countrymen, this is a favorite experience, and to have this happen at the start of the season has left us frozen in shock," said Philip Grant, Ireland's San Francisco-based consul general.

The Rev. Aidan McAleenan, a Roman Catholic priest who was sitting Wednesday with two of the injured at John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek, said that they were doing fine but that friends of the dead and injured were in shock and having a hard time talking.

Darrick Hom, president of the Structural Engineers Association of Northern California, visited the site of the collapse and said he noticed the broken wooden beams under the balcony were crumbling in the hands of investigating engineers.

"That wood was decayed or had some serious deterioration to the point where they could touch it with their hands and it was coming off in chunks in their hands," Hom said. He said it was surprising to see such deterioration in a building just 8 years old.

Normally, any building material — wood, steel or concrete — that will be exposed to the elements requires weatherproofing at the time of construction, Hom said.

Nothing in state code requires follow-up inspections of balconies after a building is issued a certificate of occupancy, unless there is major remodeling, said Brian Ferguson, deputy director of the state Department of General Services.

Although Florida has some balcony inspection requirements, most places don't require any reviews after construction is complete. Lawrence Ubell, president of New York-based Accurate Building Inspectors, said that could spell trouble.

"Annual inspections are so important for all balconies and terraces, but particularly for ones made of wood," he said. "In fact, rotting wood is the biggest cause of balcony and terrace failures."

Sari Kosdon, a Berkeley graduate student who has lived at Library Gardens since last August, said she feels terrible about the Irish students' deaths.

"I see these kids all the time and they are just so happy to have gone to this country and the opportunity," she said. "I feel like as a country we've failed them."