Wexford students were close to Berkeley tragedy

By Amy Lewis

Published 23/06/2015 | 00:00

People react during a memorial for those...People react during a memorial for those who lost their lives after a balcony gave way in Berkeley, California on June 17, 2015. Dry rot and overcrowding could be responsible for the collapse of the balcony that sent six young Irish nationals plummeting to their deaths. AFP PHOTO / JOSH EDELSONJosh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images...A
People react during a memorial for those...People react during a memorial for those who lost their lives after a balcony gave way in Berkeley, California on June 17, 2015. Dry rot and overcrowding could be responsible for the collapse of the balcony that sent six young Irish nationals plummeting to their deaths. AFP PHOTO / JOSH EDELSONJosh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images...A

The horrific effects of last week's tragedy in Berkeley were felt across the globe, but some students from Wexford were closer to the tragedy, living near the apartment block where six students died when the balcony collapsed.

Kilmuckridge resident Nicole Hammel is on a J1 in San Francisco and is living near to where the students plunged to their deaths. She described the level of panic that she and her housemates experienced last Monday night when the accident occurred in Library Gardens.

'We heard sirens at around one o' clock that morning, but we presumed it was the police as we live on College Avenue where there are regular frat parties,' said Nicole, who is the daughter of Kilmuckridge publican, Nicky Hammel. 'Then one of our housemates rushed into our room in a panic telling us that a balcony had collapsed and that five Irish people had died.'

Nicole and her friend Ruth Bowe, from Wexford town, moved to the city on June 3 and soon secured jobs in Kombu Cafe in the Four Seasons Hotel. The girls, who are both studying Sports Rehabilitation and Athletic Therapy in IT Carlow, decided to stay at home that night as they had work the following morning. However, according to Nicole, some of her housemates had been out and naturally, they worried for their safety when they heard of the accident.

'We instantly searched the house to ensure all 15 of us were home and safe. We were,' said Nicole.

However, the families of the students had to wait longer for confirmation that they were not involved in the accident.

'The majority of us had several missed calls and messages from home. It seems everybody in Ireland knew before we did,' she added.

The two girls and their housemates waited until noon on Wednesday to find out the names of the injured and deceased. Despite not knowing the students personally, Ruth and Nicole said they sympathise greatly with their friends, some of whom live in the apartment below them.

'They sat outside for majority of Wednesday waiting on caland updates, looking upset and worn out,' said Nicole.

Ruth said that she's thinking of the family members of those involved, many of whom flew out to the city in the days following the accident.

'My thoughts and prayers are with them,' said Ruth. 'It's such a tragedy.'

On Wednesday evening, the two girls and their friends attended a candlelight vigil in a local park to pay their respects to the deceased and their loved ones. The mood was solemn. Thousands of people stood in silence for an hour to honour those who lost their lives in the accident.

According to the girls, the people of Berkeley have been 'greatly supportive' of the Irish living in the area, including themselves. The residents of their house received flowers and a card from one of their neighbours following the accident on Monday. This high level of support is evident around the area.

'We walked by the apartments yesterday and it was so overwhelming,' said Nicole. 'The apartments are surrounded by flowers, cards, Irish flags and pictures. These have been laid down by Irish and American people.'

For Nicole, the mood in San Francisco has changed dramatically. On the night of June 16, the streets of Berkeley were silent for the first time since their arrival. As the girls passed the Library Gardens apartment complex on their way to work last Tuesday morning, they said a prayer for the students who, like themselves, came to America to meet new people and gain exciting experiences.

'We're so lucky. It could have been any of us,' said Ruth.

According to the girls, everyone in the community is deeply saddened by the accident, particularly other Irish students.

'Something like this brings home how easily accidents can happen. We can all relate to this situation,' said Nicole.

Ruth and Nicole do not have a balcony in their apartment complex. However, they have an 'unsturdy' attic which they use a sitting room. Despite receiving no safety warnings on their arrival, the pair are being 'very careful' in the room, especially since the accident.

Yet, regardless of any gratitude they hold for their safety or any precautions that they take, the girls said that the event has changed the mindset of not only themselves, but of all Irish students residing in San Francisco.

'We are all deeply saddened over here, it will definitely take time for people to enjoy their J1 again,' said Nicole.

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