D.A. Taking on Fatal Balcony Failure

TUESDAY, JUNE 30, 2015

BERKELEY, CA--Severe dry rot doomed a balcony that ripped loose from an apartment building and sent six college students plunging to their deaths, city building inspectors say.

In a report released June 23, one week after the deadly collapse, the Berkeley Building and Safety Division said the deck’s severed joist ends looked “extensively rotted” where the structure tore off the exterior wall of the Library Gardens apartment building.

The report stopped short of blaming the rotted beams for the collapse.

Meanwhile, the District Attorney’s office says it will “begin looking into the matter,” reports relate.

The complex was less than 10 years old.

Six Killed

The fifth-floor balcony on the 176-unit Library Gardens apartment building snapped shortly after midnight June 16 during a birthday party, sending 13 people plunging to the street below.

Six were killed. Five were from Ireland, and the sixth had Irish-American citizenship, officials said. They have been identified as Olivia Burke, 21; Eoghan Culligan, 21; Niccolai (Nick) Schuster, 21; Lorcan Miller, 21; Eimear Walsh, 21; and Ashely Donohoe, 22. Autopsies confirmed the students died of blunt injuries.

Seven others were hospitalized with broken bones and “life-altering injuries,” news outlets reported. Many of the victims had been working in the San Francisco Bay area on internships. They attended University College Dublin or the Dublin Institute of Technology.

City Investigation Concludes

In its 10-page report, officials said the analysis was based on direct observations of the balcony assembly following the collapse. A forensic examination and lab tests were not included in the scope of the review.

The officials indicated that the cantilevered balcony’s joist beams "had completely sheared off approximately 16-20 inches from the exterior building face," according to the report.

The outer beams of the balcony sustained “significant rot and decay,” but inner joists appeared in better shape, the report said.

No Formal Cause

The analysis suggests moisture could have led to the decay of the balcony support and its ultimate collapse. However, the city’s planning director Eric Angstadt said that city inspectors were not responsible for determining why the collapse occurred and that no further analysis was planned.

“We are not making any sort of formal causal determination,” Angstadt told members of the media.

“We don’t know and we aren’t going to know or determine how moisture got into the assembly.”

The staff did, however, confirm that the building’s approved plans complied with California Building codes in effect at the time of occupancy in 2007.

Introvert / CC BY-SA 2.5 / Wikimedia Commons

City inspectors recommended new and modified regulations to prevent another similar tragedy.

The balcony directly below the one that collapsed was removed after the incident when inspectors deemed it structurally unsafe.

Code Changes Urged

Based on the observations, the city staff recommends that the City Council adopt new and modified regulations to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.

The changes would make “new balconies and other sealed areas exposed to weather subject to stricter requirements on materials, inspection and ventilation,” city officials said.

In addition, the proposed regulations would institute regular maintenance inspections for all such spaces for future buildings. The new inspection requirements would also apply to existing buildings and would require inspections of all such spaces within six months of the passage of the proposed ordinances.

Subsequently, those units would be required to have maintenance inspections by qualified inspectors once every five years, officials report.

Probe Shifts to D.A.

The probe into the collapse is not over. The Alameda County District Attorney’s Office will take the lead moving forward.

Nancy E. O'Malley
Official Photo

Alameda County District Attorney Nancy E. O'Malley's office is in charge of the collapse investigation.

“In light of Berkeley’s statement Tuesday afternoon that it had concluded its investigation, this office will now be the lead agency in this investigation,” District Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Teresa Drenick told the Mercury News Wednesday.

“We continue to work with the city of Berkeley, and they with us, as we go forward.”

The Police Department is also cooperating with the case, asking to retain the removed balcony debris, the news outlet reported.

Contractor Reviewing Report

The Library Gardens building was constructed in 2007 by Segue Construction, of Pleasanton, CA.

A Segue Construction spokesman told media outlets that the company was reviewing the findings of the city’s report.

Since the collapse, reports have emerged that the builder has been entangled in multiple lawsuits involving balconies and/or water intrusion on other properties.

Reports say the company has paid more than $6.5 million to settle two such cases.


Tagged categories: Building envelope; Condominiums/High-Rise Residential; Fatalities; Health and safety; Moisture management; Multifamily; North America; Program/Project Management; Residential Construction; Waterproofing; Wood

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