Hundreds of grief-stricken students and other mourners gathered for a candlelight vigil and group prayer in Civic Center Park on Wednesday night

By Troy Hooper
Updated June 18, 2015 05:30 PM
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Troy Hooper

Heartbroken and incredulous, Samuel Stuart pointed to the remaining wood of the fifth-floor balcony that collapsed early Tuesday in Berkeley, California, killing six partygoers and injuring seven others.

“Look at that. It’s rotten,” said Stuart, a 22-year-old Irishman in Berkeley on a temporary work visa, just like his family friend, Lorcén Miller, who died in the accident. “I think the builders will get in trouble for this. They didn’t care about the craftsmanship of the building. They were just trying to turn a quick buck.”

Nearby, an Irish tricolor hung from police tape that cordoned off a section of Kittredge Street in front of the Library Gardens apartment building where a student’s 21st-birthday party tragically ended at about 12:45 a.m. Tuesday. Other Irish flags were draped on the sidewalk beneath flower bouquets, burning candles, a stovepipe hat, a box of Barry’s tea and several handwritten cards to commemorate the lives of the young people who were lost in a storm of debris and red party cups that dreadful night.

Press reports have suggested that overcrowding of the balcony may have contributed to the accident.

“It doesn’t matter how many people were on the balcony. No balcony should give out like that,” said Stuart, who arrived in the San Francisco Bay Area on May 25 and is working at a local bakery. His brother was a close friend of Miller, a 21-year-old medical student from University College Dublin.

Scrutiny of the building’s developer intensified Thursday as it came to light that Segue Construction Inc. has paid $6.5 million in the past couple of years to settle a pair of lawsuits similarly alleging shoddy work.

A message left with Segue Construction, which is based in Pleasanton, California, was not immediately returned to PEOPLE. The company issued a statement, however, that reads, in part: “Segue’s hearts go out to the families and loved ones of the young people who died or were injured in this tragic accident. Segue Construction has built more than 6,000 apartment units and has never had an incident like this in its history.” The statement said the firm has offered its assistance and is fully cooperating with investigating authorities.

Matthew Strickland, who lives around the corner from Library Gardens, stood at the edge of the yellow police tape Wednesday evening examining the stucco building with a pair of binoculars.

“This is an earthquake zone,” he said. “The balcony clearly wasn’t up to par.”

Strickland, who has worked in construction for 31 years and holds multiple certifications, said there should have been a Simpson strap tied back to the building to better support the balcony. He also questioned the integrity of the structure’s beams, speculating that the wood was reused. A white substance that some experts have suggested is mold could be calcium hydroxide, a by-product of concrete that he said could have seeped into the building materials if “form wood” was used.

Authorities are currently investigating the cause of the collapse.

Although no official conclusion has been reached, Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates has publicly speculated that wooden beams damaged by water appear to have caused the sudden collapse.

Hundreds of grief-stricken students and other mourners gathered for a candlelight vigil and group prayer in Civic Center Park on Wednesday night. Many of them openly wept and held one another for comfort. A smaller vigil took place in the same park the night before, hours after the shocking tragedy.

Berkeley police estimated as many as 500 people showed up for Wednesday night’s vigil.

“It s very moving to be here tonight,” said Philip Grant, consul general of Ireland to the Western United States. “We’re all incredibly proud of our young people. They’ve given so much strength to the families. They’ve given so much strength to ourselves and to their friends who are in the hospitals. There’s been an outpouring of grief that shows the strength of the Irish and the solidarity we’ve built together.”

Earlier in the day, a mass was held at a local church that attracted approximately 300 people.

Families of the victims began arriving in Berkeley on Tuesday night. Two more families were still in transit, Grant said. Arrangements are underway to return the bodies of the deceased to Ireland.

The families are placing trust in local authorities to ferret out the accident’s root cause, Grant said.

“Of course there are questions we’d like answers to, but that will happen in due course,” he said. “What’s very important is this doesn’t happen again. That’s the objective that everyone shares.”