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Rohnert Park woman among 6 killed in Berkeley balcony collapse

It’s the last thing anybody expects: the solid ground beneath them giving away. But that’s what happened in a freakish and tragic moment on a fourth-floor balcony in Berkeley early Tuesday that sent six young people - including a 22-year-old Rohnert Park woman - plummeting to their deaths.

Thirteen people were at a 21st birthday party at the Berkeley apartment when the balcony they were on collapsed and they fell 50 feet onto the pavement below. Seven people were seriously injured.

Ashley Donohoe, a Sonoma State University student, was declared dead at the scene, an Alameda County Coroner’s official said. She was the only American killed, though the New York Times reported Donohoe had a dual Irish and U.S. citizenship. The others were all 21-year-olds from Ireland: Oliva Burke, Eoghan Culligan, Niccolai Schuster, Lorcan Miller and Eimear Walsh. Donohoe was related to Burke, the Irish Times reported.

Those who knew Donohoe grieved the loss of a woman they described as uncommonly bright and kind.

At Rancho Cotate High School, where she graduated in 2011, she was “outgoing and well-respected” among her peers, according to Assistant Principal Josh Wilson.

“She was an honor roll student,” said Wilson, who knew her well through his role overseeing the school’s advanced placement program. “She was a great student, not to mention a phenomenal soccer player. I knew she had a bright future ahead of her, which just compounds the tragedy that just occurred.”

After she graduated high school, Donohoe returned to campus to volunteer as an assistant soccer coach for at least two seasons, Wilson recalled.

“That really showed her character, her love for community. (Seeing her return to campus to volunteer) is something I’ll always cherish.”

Her younger sister, Amanda, graduated from Rancho Cotate less than two weeks ago and the entire family, including Ashley, was there to watch her graduate, cheering enthusiastically, Wilson said.

“They are just a great Rancho family, involved in many aspects of school and community,” he said. “At this point, our hearts reach out to them in this time of need.”

Prior to Rancho Cotate, Donohoe attended the small, close-knit St. Eugene’s Cathedral School in Santa Rosa, where there are about 40 students to a grade.

The school community, which is like a family, was rocked by the news, said Santa Rosa resident Jamie Flanagan. Her son attended the school with Donohoe. Tuesday evening, he had left home to comfort another family who had been very close with Donohoe.

“We’ve known her since she was 3,” Flanagan said. “Just, everyone is so sad.”

Like others, Flanagan remembered Donohoe as a cheerful woman. “She was just the most positive, happy thing I’ve ever met. She was just a little ray of sunshine.”

Donohoe was particularly interested in math and science, Wilson said. She carried that passion to Sonoma State, where a spokeswoman said she was a biology student.

“We’re all still reeling,” Susan Kashak, the spokeswoman, said Tuesday afternoon. “The loss of any student is tragic, but to have a student be 22 and almost ready to graduate - our hearts go out to the family.”

A neighbor, who did not want to be identified out of respect for the family, said Donohoe was an outgoing girl whose love of soccer went back to her childhood.

“She was real friendly,” the neighbor said, adding that the family lived on that quiet cul de sac on the north end of town for at least 15 years. Both the parents were from Ireland, the neighbor added.

Donohoe’s family, grieving Tuesday, did not return calls seeking comment.

In Berkeley, police and fire and building officials worked throughout the day to figure out why the roughly 5-by-10-foot concrete-floor balcony broke loose from the side of the stucco apartment building, situated a couple of blocks from the UC Berkeley campus. In the meantime, they have forbidden access to the collapsed balcony as well as three others, a city spokesperson said. The city also has ordered the property owner to remove the failed balcony and assess the remaining ones for safety within 48 hours.

High school student Jason Biswas’ family nearby was awakened by the noise Tuesday morning.

“They thought there was an earthquake, but then we looked out the window and saw seven or eight people on the ground,” the 16-year-old said. “There were piles of blood everywhere.”

Police had gotten a complaint about a loud party in the apartment about an hour before the accident but had not arrived when the balcony gave way just after 12:30 a.m., spokesman Byron White said. Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny said police told him 13 people were on the balcony.

“I just heard a bang and a lot of shouting,” said Dan Sullivan, a 21-year-old student from Ireland who was asleep in the five-story building.

The metal-rail balcony tipped downward and fell off the side of the building, landing on the third-floor balcony beneath it.

Berkeley officials said the building code would have required the balcony to hold 60 pounds per square foot, which in this case would work out to somewhere around 3,000 pounds - more than 13 normal-size people.

Investigators will probably look first at whether the balcony was built to code and whether rain or other weather weakened it, said Kevin Moore, a San Francisco-based engineer and chairman of the structural standards committee of the Structural Engineers Association of California.

The Library Gardens apartment complex, completed in 2007, is in a lively part of downtown Berkeley close to the campus and is a popular place for students to live. Several tenants reached by telephone said it is well maintained.

The building was owned by BlackRock, the largest asset management fund in the U.S., according to city officials, and was managed by Greystar Management, whose website says it operates more than 400,000 units in the U.S. and abroad. A call to Greystar officials was not immediately returned.

While Sonoma County residents grieved the loss of Donohoe, news of the deaths of so many young Irish citizens brought an outpouring of grief in Ireland.

“My heart breaks for the parents who lost children this morning, and I can only imagine the fear in the hearts of other parents whose children are in California this summer as they seek to contact them now,” Ireland’s prime minister told lawmakers in Dublin.

“It is truly terrible to have such a serious and sad incident take place at the beginning of a summer of adventure and opportunity for so many young people on J-1 visas in the U.S.”

Other than Donohoe, everyone who died was an Irish student on a so-called J-1 visa that enables a young person to work and travel in the U.S. over the summer.

On the closed street below, a shrine was growing Tuesday: flowers, a pack of cigarettes, a Cal banner and condolence notes. Irish families were being notified, some heading for California.

This article includes ?information from the Associated Press and Staff Writers Julie Johnson and Eloísa Ruano González.

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