Deaths of Irish Citizens in Berkeley: Expressions of Sympathy

I wish to convey my sympathy and that of the joint committee to the families whose loved ones were lost so tragically as a result of yesterday morning's events in Berkeley. It will be very difficult for the families to come to terms with this tragedy. I am sure many of those involved in the events were looking forward to a bright experience abroad but suddenly all of that has been cut short, particularly for the six victims who died and for those who were critically injured. I commend the Department on its initial response. The Department, its emergency consular response team and our consul general, Mr. Philip Grant, and his team in San Francisco were all off the mark quickly in respect of this matter, as was the Minister for Foreign Affairs. This has been a very difficult time for those in Berkeley. Approximately 8,000 J1 visas are issued every year and approximately 35% of those who obtain them travel to Berkeley. Many families endured a very worrying and anxious time yesterday morning because it was night-time in California and many could not contact their children because they were asleep. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the victims.

I am glad we have been given this opportunity to extend our sincere sympathies to the families of those six young people who lost their lives in very tragic circumstances. It is terrible to see so many young people lose their lives in such circumstances. We were all shocked and horrified early yesterday afternoon when we heard the news about the tragic accident in Berkeley. I commend the Minister and the consul general and his colleagues in the United States on the programme they so swiftly put in place to do the best they could to assist the families of those who were involved in the incident and to communicate information to other families back home who were worried about children with whom they could not get in contact. The families of those who were killed are grieving in exceptionally difficult circumstances and I am glad that the State's services have been placed at their disposal. Obviously, the amount people can do to assist families that are experiencing a trauma such as this is limited. However, I welcome the support, which has been highlighted in the broadcast media, provided by the local Irish community in California and also the community in general in the Berkeley area. Those of us who represent constituencies with a history of large-scale emigration are always conscious of the impact when accidents involving those who have left our areas and travelled abroad occur.

In the Dáil yesterday, the different party leaders expressed their sympathies to the families that have lost loved ones. I take this opportunity to echo what they said and to extend my sympathy and that of the Fianna Fáil Party to those involved. I assure the families of those young people who were seriously injured that our thoughts and prayers are with them at this difficult time as well.

I join the Chairman and Deputy Smith in expressing my sympathy in respect of the terrible tragedy that took place in Berkeley. We all expect our children to outlive us so it is very tragic that these young people, who were only at the beginning their lives and who were on an adventure that they would remember for the remainder of those lives, have died. We convey our sympathies to their families and friends. I am sure the entire Irish student community in Berkeley is traumatised and shocked in the aftermath of what has happened. We also remember them as we pay our respects to those who died.

We wish those who are in hospital a full recovery. Two of them are very seriously injured. I hope those who are injured will make a full recovery.

Chomh maith le Teachtaí eile, ba mhaith liom comhbrón ó chroí a ghabháil le clanna na ndaoine a fuair bás inné. Bhí an timpiste an-tragóideach. It is every parent's worst nightmare to hear such news. The six young people who died were on a lifetime adventure in America. Many of us have known people who went to America on J1 visas. It was like a big adventure. The news we heard yesterday not only about the six who died, but also about the injured, was very tragic. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and everybody are fully behind those affected. We will give as much support as possible not only to the families of the bereaved, but also the families of those in hospital. It can be a lonely time when one's friends have died and one is in hospital. I hope those who survive and the families who have been bereaved come through this. On behalf of Sinn Féin, I extend my condolences. Anything we can do for the families and others affected should be requested of us. This applies to everyone throughout Ireland. If there is anything that any Irishman or Irishwoman, at home or abroad, can do for the families, it ought to be done. The families should not need to ask but if they must, they should do so.

I would like to be associated with the remarks that have just been made. I wish to make a suggestion, namely, that this committee, under the Chairman's leadership, write formally to the president of UCD. I believe I am correct in assuming that all the students are from UCD.

I do not believe that has been confirmed.

A significant number are from UCD. Part and parcel of living on an island off an island off the west coast of Europe is that, in order to gain an understanding of the rest of the world, one needs to travel. The J1 visa and the concentration of UCD students in Berkeley comprise a very constructive semi-sheltered way of embarking on that kind of journey. Not only should we express our sympathies to and solidarity with President Deeks and the people in UCD, but we should also encourage them to consolidate programmes such as the J1 programme and not be driven away from it or deterred from realising it simply because of the tragedy.

It appears there was a structural fault in the balcony. Other people will find out the cause. I hope the committee will agree to my recommendation.

We will get that information out. We will write to all the colleges affected.

I thank the Chairman for putting this on the agenda today. We all want to share in offering our condolences to the families of all 13 who were on the balcony. The parents of all the families of those children who were killed must be inconsolable today. One can only imagine the desolation on waking up the morning after the tragedy and realising the unimaginable has happened to one's daughter or son. That the victims died in such a random, senseless kind of way is absolutely tragic.

I was listening to our former consul yesterday. He said almost every Irish family is touched by this. It is absolutely true that so many parents can feel the grief of the bereaved parents because so many of us, including me, have had children who had the experience of going to San Francisco on a J1 visa. Parents must have felt apprehensive letting their children go but also so proud of them and excited they were getting an opportunity to spread their wings. It is absolutely tragic that those parents' children were on the cusp of realising a life full of possibilities and promise only to have it cut short.

There are no words that can console the parents. I also think today of the families of those who were injured, badly in some cases. They face a lifetime of grief and living with the aftermath of what happened. It is impossible to console them with words but I hope that, as time goes by, all the parents will get some comfort from knowing the prayers and thoughts of the entire nation are with them at this time. I thank the Department and Minister for making resources available - this will continue - to make the journey a little easier for the parents.

To the families of Ashley, Eimear, Niccolai, Olivia, Lorcán and Eoghan, we all extend our sympathies in what are the most tragic of circumstances. I refer to the phone call that no parent ever wants to receive, and others have referred to a lifetime of grief. Having to bury one's own child is something no parent should ever have to face.

I congratulate the Minister and staff in the Department on their handling of this tragedy in a very appropriate manner. I suggest that the Chairman write to the emergency services in Berkeley to thank them for their assistance to the families and those who were injured on behalf of the committee.

I wish to add to the sentiments of the previous speakers. What has happened is unspeakably sad, including for those of us who had children who used the J1 visa system and matured in their life-long development by being in America, either working or studying. The students involved in the tragedy were either working or studying and were enjoying their lives. They were all around 21 or 22 years of age. There were celebrating what should have been the most happy days of their lives. They were celebrating a 21st birthday party surrounded by friends. I have a vision of the enthusiasm, warmth and collective enjoyment of the students before the tragedy. Within seconds, the collapse of the balcony resulted in the deaths of six, and seven were seriously injured. I note the speed of the transformation from the joy, happiness, celebration, freedom, partying, enthusiasm and energy of the young people. They were celebrating a friend's 21st birthday, a very important event in the life of a young person, in an environment that was very exciting for them. It was unbelievable for them to see such a sudden event resulting in the death of six and injury of seven within minutes.

We should express our admiration for the departmental staff who are working overtime. I congratulate the volunteers who are assisting the families. It is in the wake of a tragedy or event like this that Irish people come into their own. They are very supportive. I congratulate all the volunteers who are working alongside our departmental officials in trying to support and facilitate the visits of parents, families and loved ones. I sympathise with the families.

I thank the Chairman for putting this item on the agenda of this morning's meeting. It is important that the bereaved parents know the thoughts and prayers of the nation are with them today as they mourn their wonderfully talented young children. What occurred is particularly tragic. I heard a school principal speak this morning about one of the students, a former student of his, who lost his life. The young man, who was highly talented, had his whole life ahead of them.

Young people have had their lives cut short so tragically and suddenly. The dead could have been any of the 7,000 young people with J1 visas this year. It is at times like this that we appreciate the work officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and our consular representatives do. They are to be applauded and complimented on the swift action they took to help people and their ability to bring the community on the ground in Berkeley with them. It appears an enormous amount of help, assistance, counselling and support are available for the young people, who are obviously highly traumatised by what has happened. We all hope and pray that the young people who are seriously injured will make a full recovery and will soon be back in Ireland, reunited with their families.

I also wish to be associated with the sympathy expressed in respect of those who so tragically lost their lives and with the support for those who were injured, some of whom were injured seriously. It serves to cause one to ponder on the slim nature of the threat to life and how it can change so dramatically and quickly in such a short time from an occasion of celebration to one of particular sadness. This has resonated with parents, both in Ireland and throughout the world, who will recognise the traumatic nature of such a tragedy because so many young people were involved.. Members should also recognise and acknowledge the work of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the consulate and consul in Berkeley, as well as all those who have offered support to the families of those who died and who were injured. I also express the wish that all those who are injured hopefully will recover to the highest possible standard.

I thank Deputy Durkan. As members can see, the entire country is united in grief over this and as the Mayor of Berkeley noted, it also was a dark day for Berkeley. The joint committee certainly will take on board the suggestion made by Deputy Quinn in writing to the universities affected. In addition, the joint committee will contact the consul general in San Francisco, Mr. Philip Grant, to ask him to convey its best wishes to the emergency services, as well as to himself and his team for the work done there. I believe that is the best way to do this. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a n-anam dílis and I thank all members for their contributions this morning.

I also wish to extend the joint committee's sympathy and best wishes to the people of Georgia and to the citizens of Tbilisi in particular, which is very much on members' agenda at present, on foot of the dreadful flooding and loss of life there. I will ask the secretariat to write to the Georgian chargé d'affaires at the embassy here to extend the sympathy of the joint committee. Is that agreed? Agreed.