Deaths of Irish Students in California: Statements

We are all shocked by the loss of life and injuries in Berkeley yesterday. It is shocking to think such beautiful young people, full of joy, excitement and hope, who had only recently set off on a summer's adventure, died so tragically. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of Ashley Donohoe, Olivia Burke, Eimear Walsh, Lorcán Miller, Niccolai Schuster and Eoghan Culligan. Seven young people remain in hospital, some of them critically injured.

Yesterday the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, established a consular emergency centre, which dealt with almost 500 calls. This morning a team of officials is at Dublin Airport to assist the families who are travelling, while the emergency response telephone line remains open to provide support, advice and assistance for concerned families. The families of the deceased and injured will be met on arrival in San Francisco Airport by our local consular team which will assist and support them, together with a number of volunteers who will offer assistance. The Department was in touch with each of the families of the deceased and injured yesterday and each has been assigned a designated liaison officer to help with the practical aspects of the very difficult and emotional journey ahead.

In San Francisco the Irish consul general in the area, Mr. Philip Grant, has been extremely active in liaising with families, supporting students and working with the local police and authorities. He has established an incident centre at the city hall in Berkeley with the assistance of local authorities and local Irish community groups. Additional staff have been provided by the Irish consuls in Boston and New York for families who travel though these cities. A number of hospitals have organised grief counsellors who will be available at the incident centre at Berkeley city hall.

It is terrible to have such a serious and sad incident take place at the beginning of the summer's activity and an opportunity of which so many young people avail via the J1 visa programme in the United States. I encourage families who have remaining concerns about loved ones who might be affected by this terrible tragedy to make contact with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's consular response team, the telephone number of which is (353) (01) 4180200.

I thank the leaders of the various parties in the House for their support in this matter and solidarity with the families and friends of the deceased and injured. As I indicated, I propose to dispatch the Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora to act a Government presence in solidarity with the families and young people in San Francisco.

For the families who have lost sons and daughters in Berkeley, there are no words. Words wash away like water. This tragedy brings us together, as families and as a community, both here and in America, to mourn the loss of these wonderful, beautiful young people. On behalf of the Government and the Labour Party, I express my deepest sympathy to the families and friends of Olivia Burke, Lorcán Miller, Eimear Walsh, Eoghan Culligan, Ashley Donohoe and Niccolai Schuster. We are also thinking of those students who were injured in Berkeley and their families and friends. We pray that they will recover from their injuries.

The consul general in San Francisco will provide every possible support and assistance for the families. As the Taoiseach said, the Government and all parties in the House stand ready to assist in any way we can. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan; the Minister of State, Deputy Sean Sherlock; our ambassador in the United States, H.E. Anne Anderson, and the consular staff are doing everything to put dedicated services in place which may be of some assistance to the families and friends of the deceased and injured at this difficult time.

I still recall the excitement of travelling to the United States for the summer as a student with a J1 visa. I know what the experience is meant to be and so many people who have had it, including family members, relatives and friends. Such a trip is meant to be a rite of passage, an opportunity to gain valuable life and cultural experience in a country, the United States, that is dear to all our hearts. For a lot of young people, it is a summer of love and fun. When we look at the faces of the deceased in the snapshots on social media and in the newspapers, it brings home to everybody what those days are meant to be.

Today six families are heartbroken, their children wrenched away from them in the most dreadful of circumstances. They all received that terrible telephone call during the night or day when, presumably, just before their children had been texting to say how well they and their friends were getting on. Since learning about what happened, I cannot help but think of the W. B. Yeats poem which reflects on old age and begins as follows:

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,

And nodding by the fire, take down this book,

And slowly read, and dream of the soft look

Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep

It is the utmost tragedy that six young people's lives have been lost when their eyes, as we see from the photographs, were still soft and their promise so great. We will do whatever we can to support their families in these circumstances.

As I said earlier, every Irish family is thinking about the families of the students who were killed so tragically in Berkeley yesterday and the families of those who were injured. In that context, it is important that the national Parliament reflect the sense of deep grief and sadness felt across the country and overseas where Irish communities reside.

It is also important that the Parliament would adjourn for a period as a mark of respect to the deceased and as an important demonstration of solidarity with their families, friends and communities. It is a demonstration of solidarity with the young people of our country as well. The J1 programme is essentially a programme for young people. It brings to mind opportunity, a summer of fun and happiness, the beckoning of new eras, relationships and so forth. That is why it has such a resonance among young people in this country and overseas and among those who were on J1 programmes in the past and who will be on them in the future. It is important that our Parliament reflects that and has the capacity to show understanding and empathy with our young people who are grieving at the consequences of yesterday's tragedy.

It is an exceptional tragedy in the sense that it brings to mind the unique relationship between Ireland and the United States, which has had different manifestations down through the decades and centuries. As the US ambassador so eloquently put it, the J1 programme in the modern era is perhaps the essential ingredient of the continuing nurturing and flourishing of the unique relationship between Ireland and the United States. It is important that our Parliament reflects that.

Déanaim comhbhrón le tuismitheoirí na ndaoine óga a fuair bás inné. Tá an náisiún faoi bhrón. Is ceart agus is cóir go léireodh an Dáil é sin go soiléir. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a n-anamacha.

Déanaim comhbhrón ó chroí le teaghlaigh na ndaoine a fuair bás agus atá gortaithe. Táimid uilig ar fud an oileáin seo agus ar fud na Stát Aontaithe faoi an-bhrón. I extend on my behalf and that of Sinn Féin our deepest sympathy and condolences to the families of the six students who were killed and the seven others who were injured when a balcony collapsed in Berkeley. Five of the victims, Niccolai Schuster, Eoghan Culligan, Eimear Walsh, Olivia Burke and Lorcán Miller, all 21 years of age, had travelled to the United States on a J1 summer visa. The sixth victim, Irish-American Ashley Donohoe, was from Santa Rosa in the Bay Area of San Francisco. She and Olivia Burke were cousins. These students and their friends were in an apartment celebrating a 21st birthday. It is easy to imagine the energy, fun and excitement at that event before the disaster struck. The suddenness of the accident and the extent of the tragedy has shocked people in Ireland and the United States. It is a dreadful and stark reminder of the fragility and uncertainty of life, especially when the victims were so young, vibrant and full of possibility and potential. It is little wonder that there has been an outpouring of grief, sympathy and solidarity for all those affected. It is cliché to say it, but this tragedy is a parent's worst nightmare.

Some of the parents of the students who died or were injured arrived in San Francisco on Tuesday night. More may have arrived by now. I welcome and commend the efforts and support of the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, and his Department. I also commend the work of our consul general in San Francisco, Mr. Philip Grant, who, along with his staff, is providing support for the injured and the bereaved families. I wish to acknowledge the work of the Irish community and our diaspora in the Bay Area. It is an area with which I am familiar. I visited Berkeley some time ago. Our community has wrapped its arms around our young people there and their families. It is also important to acknowledge the support of the US ambassador to Ireland, Mr. Kevin O'Malley. I welcome very much and commend the Taoiseach's initiative in sending the Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora to represent us all.

Once again, I extend our condolences to the families and friends of all those who died and were injured. Thar ceann Shinn Féin, ba mhaith liom mo bhrón a léiriú d'achan duine atá bainteach leis an tragóid seo.

On behalf of the Technical Group, I offer my deepest sympathy and support to the families of the young people who died tragically in Berkeley, California. It is a very sad day for their parents and families as well as for Ireland. Our hearts were broken when we heard this story. When the news broke yesterday, the first reaction of many of us, particularly those of us living in the north side of Dublin, was that it was a reminder of the Stardust tragedy. The same feeling came across as that following the Stardust fire tragedy many years ago. We think of young people who were taken away in a flash by an horrific incident. Many of us felt strongly for those families. It is difficult to respond and to deal with and feel the heartbreak. The loss of someone close is a difficult thing in anyone's life. The loss of a young person in a matter of seconds is every parent's nightmare. Many of us feel that today.

I commend the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and the foreign affairs consular staff who do an excellent job. I was in Lisbon recently where I saw another family in a crisis situation, which did not make the headlines, and the excellent work the consular staff did in Lisbon for the family. This goes on all the time although it might not make the headlines. I thank those people. They have been great support and very professional. It is important the Government ensures to give them the maximum support.

Six young people are gone from us in a matter of seconds. It is so sad for the parents. We all feel the hurt and pain. I welcome the suspension of the Dáil and the fact that the Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora will travel to the USA to assist those families in their 40 or 50 hours of crisis. The situation, which will involve hanging around hospitals and all that process, will be a nightmare for them. Eimear Walsh, Niccolai Schuster, Lorcán Miller, Olivia Burke, Eoghan Culligan and Ashley Donohoe are the young people who died. Their parents are suffering. Let us also remember those who have been severely injured, especially the seven young people. Many of them have very severe injuries. There is also the people who were at the party, who are experiencing a massive trauma. It is important that there is unity in this House and the country to back these families. Life and young people are very important. On behalf of the Technical Group, I offer the parents our deepest sympathy and all of our support.

I call Deputy Creighton to speak on behalf of the non-aligned group.

On my behalf and that of Renua Ireland, I join those who have spoken in utter sympathy and deep condolence with the families of Ashley Donohoe, Olivia Burke, Eimear Walsh, Eoghan Culligan, Niccolai Schuster and Lorcán Miller. It is fair to say that these young people went to the United States a few weeks ago expecting to live the dream. Tragically, yesterday, the dream turned into a nightmare. It is a nightmare for the individuals who so tragically lost their lives, their families, those injured, their friends and loved ones and everyone connected. We offer our deepest sympathy. I hope the families will feel some sense of solace from the genuine outpouring of grief across the country. It really is heartfelt. We have all experienced it. I commend the response of the Government, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and everyone in his Department, who have been so professional, in particular, Mr. Philip Grant and his team in San Francisco. I am sure their work is giving some comfort to the families of the deceased and injured.

Before we stand for a minute's silence, I wish to make a suggestion that could be considered by the Whips. It would be nice if we joined our colleagues from the Seanad and held a short, ecumenical service in this Chamber. It would be a fitting way for Members of the Oireachtas to express their sympathy together. Perhaps Members would consider such an ecumenical service. It would be nice to hold it in this Chamber and to be joined by our colleagues in the Seanad.

Members rose.
Sitting suspended at 12.50 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.