Berkeley Balcony Tragedy

Jackie Donohue “In a million years I don’t think any parent would say, ‘don’t step out on a balcony in the United States of America, because it could be the last step you’ll take’.”

As heard on The Ryan Tubridy Show

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On the 16th of June 2015 a 21st birthday party at an apartment in Berkeley, California, attended by a bunch of friends, living their young lives to the full, ended in tragedy. The 4th floor balcony gave way, killing some and seriously injuring others who had stepped out onto it. Ashley Donohue, Olivia Burke, Eimear Walsh, Lorcán Miller, Niccolai Schuster, and Eoghan Culligan are names we all recognise as those who lost their lives that night.

Jackie Donohue, mother to Ashley and aunt to Olivia, spoke to Ryan Tubridy this morning about how grief can galvanise.

Thinking back to the night her life changed forever, Jackie reflected on all of the cautious advice parents dispense to their young adult children as they embark on a night out; don’t drink and drive, text me when you get there etc.

 “In a million years I don’t think any parent would say, ‘don’t step out on a balcony in the United States of America, because it could be the last step you’ll take’.”

Keen to get a sense of what Ashley was like, Ryan asked Jackie to describe her. Listeners could hear a smile emerge as the stricken mother recalled her daughter’s personality, her interests and her final movements on the day of her death. Indeed, Jackie told Ryan, she drew on Ashley’s natural leadership qualities to motivate her while pursuing change to building regulations in the state of California.

“Ashley was a wonderful daughter, both her and my niece Olivia were best friends. She was the type of kid that everyone looked up to, a leader definitely, always happy, always included other people. She would definitely say ‘Mom get them, don’t let them away with it and don’t let anyone else go through what you guys are going through’. She was just one of those kids who was the life and soul.”

It’s clear that Jackie is a force of nature, determined to take her intense pain and put it to some sort of practical use. She has tirelessly campaigned in recent years to bring about legislative change in order to prevent future tragedies similar to the one that claimed the lives of her daughter, niece and their friends.

Jackie’s tenacity seems limitless. Working on the issue at night and in her spare time, she discovered that the construction company that had built the apartment block in Berkeley had paid out over $23 million in construction defect settlements in recent years. Those settlements were never reported to the Californian contractor’s licensing board. Shockingly, this was a board on which the owner of the company in question sat.

“For me that’s a conflict of interest. I kept it in my pocket and then when it was going through for the Governor to sign, I met with the Governor’s Office and I let them know that I might be a grieving mother, but there’s something fishy going on.”

Since Ashley’s death, Jackie’s efforts to amend building regulations regarding balconies have resulted in two major pieces of legislation being passed and signed into law in California. This achievement is set to be recognised when Jackie receives a Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad this week. Ryan wondered how it felt to be honoured in such a way.

“It’s bittersweet, it really, really is. I’m very humbled, I’m very shocked to be receiving the award. For me, I’m really accepting the award on behalf of the six souls who passed that night.”

You can listen to Ryan’s interview with Jackie in full here.

Jan Ní Fhlanagáin

© The Listener 2019

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