The death of six young Irish students as a balcony collapsed at an apartment complex in Berkeley, California, on Monday 15 June, has shocked the Irish people. Particularly affected by this appalling tragedy is the community of University College Dublin, as three of the victims, Lorcán Miller, Eimear Walsh and Niccolai Schuster, were students there. They were attending a 21st birthday celebration when the supporting beams of the balcony gave way suddenly.
Flags at UCD have been flying at half-mast as students and staff have tried to come to terms with the news and mourn their deceased friends. Jesuit Leon O’Giolláin SJ is a chaplain at UCD and was very involved in the co-ordinated response of the university in offering support services to the students, their families in the wake of this unprecedented tragedy.
Leon outlined details of the university’s response to the tragedy which triggered the implementation of an immediate action plan, that included sending his chaplaincy colleague Fr John McNerney to Berkeley to be there to on the ground to help and support the students still in San Francisco, those being treated in hospital and those who were affected by the tragedy. “We sent over John McNerney to be present to provide support to the families. He was welcomed and brought from the airport to meet the families and those injured in the hospital. He was also able to go to a Vigil Mass that evening, so he’s very involved over there”.
Leon also explained the various practical ways that the Chaplaincy Service at UCD has been offering support to anyone within the university who has been affected by the tragedy. “On Thursday 18 June we had an open door in Saint Stephen’s Chaplaincy to facilitate students – especially those who were friends or classmates of those who died or were injured – so that they could come together and help each other come to terms with what happened. We had some light refreshments for them as well, and also a beautiful chapel set up at the back of the Chaplaincy, where they could sign the book of condolences.”
Leon highlighted that the support services at UCD would continue to be available to anyone in the university community affected by the tragedy when the academic term begins in the autumn. “We have a system in place at present for looking after people, and we will have further meetings before September so that we are ready for the return of students. That will also be a critical time. Students will become conscious of the absence of people in their class. There is an amazing network of support systems in the College – supervisors, chaplains, and so on – and information about all this has been sent out to students already.”
Leon also presided at a memorial service which took place in UCD Belfield Church on Friday 19 June. President Michael D Higgins was among the attendance at the service, at which hundreds from the UCD community came together to remember and pray for the students who died, their families, the injured, and the students both at home and abroad. Addressing the congregation as “believers or non-believers, Christians or other . . . ”, Leon noted how people had gathered from many parts of Ireland, the US and beyond by videolink “to express their sorrow and share the pain and seek some comfort in solidarity”. He talked about the common expectation of “some magic formula” that would cast some light on this tragedy, and while there was no such insight, he observed that “when we are faced with appalling tragedy . . . our common humanity – and the best of it – bursts forth like a spring in a desert place”. He spoke of “a deep, heartfelt solidarity and compassion…across all geographical barriers here and in the US”, and all of this, he said, “tells us that it is really love that makes the world go round…that love indeed conquers all…Nothing in life, in death can take away the love of God…There will be a morning after. The sun will rise again.”
To read the online book of condolences on the UCD website click here.