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DUBLIN — Flags flew at half-staff across Ireland on Wednesday as the nation mourned five students killed in a tragic balcony collapse while on their summer break in California.
The Irish students — Olivia Burke, 21; Eoghan Culligan, 21; Niccolai Schuster, 21; Lorcan Miller, 21; and Eimear Walsh, 21 — were in California on what many Irish deem a rite of passage: spending the summer working in the U.S. under the J-1 visa program.
The students were reportedly celebrating a 21st birthday at a Berkeley apartment when the balcony they were on collapsed, sending 13 people tumbling at least four stories onto the street.
"Our balcony — our balcony just literally collapsed"
The emergency call came in just after midnight Tuesday, where a screaming Irish-accented female told the California Highway Patrol dispatcher that the balcony had collapsed.
"There's people, there's unconscious," the girl pleaded after the dispatcher asked her to stop shouting and said she was patching through to 911.
"People just fell off our balcony," the caller then told 911 in an audio recording released by officials. "Our balcony — our balcony just literally collapsed."
In addition to the five Irish students, 22-year-old Californian Ashley Donohoe died in the tragedy. Seven people were injured.
Burke was a third-year student at the Institute of Art, Design and Technology just outside of Dublin. The institute said she was studying for a business degree.
While in the U.S., she and Walsh were working as hostesses at Hana Zen, a Japanese restaurant at Pier 39, according to restaurant owner Alvin Louie.
"They were great young kids, very enthusiastic, full of energy," he told The Associated Press. "We're all devastated."
Several of the victims were students at University College Dublin — Schuster was studying history and politics, while Miller and Walsh were in the medical school — which pulled together a book of condolences for the families of the deceased.
"Such amazing girls who couldn't have given more to our year group in school," wrote Niamh Durcan. "Loved by all and missed by more."
Fergal Hynes, outgoing president of the students’ union at University College Dublin, told NBC News that the city had "lost six of its best and brightest students."
He added that the J-1 visa program was "supposed to be one of the most exciting challenges of your young life but unfortunately this one has ended in tragedy."
Culligan had played for his local sports club, Ballyboden St. Enda, since childhood. Coach Sean O'Connor told NBC News that the 21-year-old was "extremely popular" and "the chap that you’d like to know, a character, a gentleman."
O'Connor added that after news of the incident reached the local community "everything came to a stop-still." He added: "It took us a long time to comprehend what was happening, really. We just couldn’t believe it."
Dennis Molony, whose son Carl was a friend of Culligan's and arrived on the scene shortly after the balcony fell, added that the group are "all very traumatized by it."
"Eoghan was very popular with his team mates and this tragic news is keenly felt by all members of our Club, but especially by those players and mentors who knew him well," the team said in a statement.
Sarah McCarthy — who appears to have been Sullivan's girlfriend — posted a heartbreaking tribute on Facebook.
"No words can't begin to describe the loss I feel," she wrote. "I've lost the love of my life and my best friend."
That post has since been made private.
Police said they had received a call about a loud party shortly before reports of the balcony collapse came in.
Silvia Biswas, who lives on the floor below, told The Associated Press that noise from the party was so loud, she opened her window and yelled to keep it down. When she later was awakened by what felt like an earthquake, she looked out the window and saw bodies.
"I wouldn't have screamed at them if I had known they were going to die," she told the AP.
Niall Cogley said it was a "miracle" his daughter Clodagh had survived the collapse. He told the Irish Independent newspaper he was flying to the U.S. on Wednesday to be with his 21-year-old daughter, who was being treated for “a number of broken bones.
"That is such a tragedy," Cogley told the newspaper. "We don't know the full extent of her injuries at the moment, we are just thankful she is alive."