SIX young Irish nationals celebrating a 21st birthday party died when a balcony they were standing on gave way and they fell 60ft to the ground.
At least seven others were injured in the tragedy in Berkeley, California, where the group were spending the summer.
“They were having a party – suddenly it went down”Gerald Robinson
Witnesses said the fourth- floor balcony “suddenly went down and chucked everybody off”. All the victims were thought to be in their 20s.
Berkeley Police said survivors’ injuries were “very serious and potentially life-threatening” and there could be more fatalities.
Homicide detectives and the fire department are investigating if there were too many people on the balcony or if there was a structural problem with the building, which was developed in 2006.
Pictures of the scene showed the balcony had completely come off the base that was holding it up and was resting on the balcony on the floor below.
Shredded wood and insulation was visible where the balcony had been attached while on the pavement underneath red plastic cups from the party were still lying scattered on the street.
At 12:40am local time yesterday, Irish labourer Dan Sullivan, 21, who lives on the first floor, said he heard a “bang in the middle of the night and shouting”.
Gerald Robinson, 65, was driving past when a young man and woman who were covered in blood flagged him down. He drove them to hospital and stayed with them for an hour.
He said: “They were distraught. They were hanging on each other for comfort. They were having a party – suddenly it went down. It came down really fast and chucked everybody off.”
Berkeley police spokesman Byron White said the collapse happened shortly after they received a call about a “loud party” in the building.
The call came in around 11pm and no officers responded.
Irish foreign minister Charlie Flanagan said four of the victims died at the scene and another died in hospital. A sixth died later on. All were thought to be from Dublin.
NBC reporter Stephanie Chuang said she talked to survivors at the Castro Valley Eden Medical Centre.
She said: “They are very emotional, very distraught… they said they are here for the summer from Ireland.
“They were hanging out with their friends last night when they heard a loud commotion and they saw many of their friends injured and so they jumped into a taxi – they started going to all of the local area hospitals trying to get a status update on their friends.”
It was not clear whether the students involved were studying at Berkeley College or the University of California at Berkeley.
The apartment complex where they were staying is called Library Gardens and is located in downtown Berkeley.
The Irish government confirmed all the dead were Irish and urged Irish nationals nearby to “call home asap”.
Irish president Michael Higgins said: “I have heard with the greatest sadness of the terrible loss of life of young Irish people and the critical injury of others in Berkeley, California. My heart goes out to the families and loved ones of all those involved.”
The US ambassador to Ireland, Kevin O’Malley, said: “I would like to offer my heartfelt sympathy and condolence to the families, loved ones, and friends of the Irish students.”