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Thousands hurt in recent years from balcony collapses

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    A mourner cries after placing a candle at a vigil for six Irish students on Wednesday in Berkeley, Calif.

BERKELEY, Calif. » More than 6,000 people have been injured from collapsing balconies and porches in the U.S. since 2003 according to estimates, though it’s rare that such accidents lead to death — with just 29 killed including the six college students who died this this week in Berkeley.

The frequency of accidents comes in part due to the structures’ special vulnerability to dry rot.

"It’s all about creating a safe structure that has endurance, that has a reasonable life expectancy," said David Helfant, who identified potential flaws in design and construction after an unofficial inspection of the Berkeley balcony that collapsed.

"When I see something like that in a town I work and live in, it’s extremely depressing, it’s upsetting," he said.

A Consumer Product Safety Commission analysis for The Associated Press estimated that 4,600 emergency room visits were associated with deck collapses in the past decade and another 1,900 with porch failures.

With millions of ER visits a year in the U.S., "the type of incident that happened in Berkeley appears to be rare," commission spokesman Alexander Filip said based on data collected from 100 hospitals to make the projections.

One of the worst collapses occurred in 2003, when a porch fell in Chicago and killed 13 people. The commission identified just 10 fatalities that occurred since then — until Tuesday.

The Berkeley balcony snapped off the fifth floor of an apartment building, tossing 13 people to the street 50 feet below. Seven survivors are being treated in hospitals, while funerals are being planned for the six who died.

Experts and city officials have said the 40-square-foot balcony might have snapped off because supports had dry rotted, a problem that structural engineers say can be prevented through proper design, construction and maintenance aimed at sealing out water.

Left unrepaired, dry rot can weaken balconies and create collapse hazards, say structural engineers.

"This cantilevered wood balcony appears to be severely rotted at its support," structural engineer Peter Curry said while looking at pictures of the Berkeley balcony. "That’s usually a problem with the waterproofing. These should not break like this."

Dry rot occurs when water gets into poorly ventilated areas of buildings and a fungus starts to decay the timber. If left unchecked, wood can fall apart or turn to powder.

The Berkeley apartment complex was built by Segue Construction and completed in 2007. Company spokesman Sam Singer said the firm has never "had an incident like this in its history."

Segue did not respond to further requests for comment.

Berkeley City Councilman Jesse Arreguin, whose downtown district includes the Library Gardens complex, wants the council to begin at its July meeting to consider regulations that might help balconies safer.

Among his ideas are requiring all new balconies to be reinforced with steel and mandating that owners of existing structures disclose to prospective tenants if their balconies are unreinforced like the one that collapsed.

"This is a really urgent issue we should start addressing," Arreguin said. "The way it was designed and constructed created a situation where this could happen and it makes me angry.

Attorneys Thomas Miller and his daughter Rachel Miller, who specialize in construction defect lawsuits, say water problems — mold and dry rot — are the biggest culprits in such legal actions.

"Nearly every case is because of water," Rachel Miller said. "Water gets into the building. You have to anticipate that’s going to happen."

The Millers haven’t handled any collapse cases. But they have sued and settled lawsuits that allege balconies have incurred dry rot.

Thomas Miller said landlords and property managers "have to expect that people will use balconies" and that they are required to ensure the balconies are safe, including being free of dry rot.

Miller says property managers and condo associations are required to inspect balconies annually.

The students who died were Ashley Donohoe, 22, of Rohnert Park, California, and Olivia Burke, Eoghan Culligan, Niccolai Schuster, Lorcan Miller and Eimear Walsh, all 21-year-olds from Ireland.

Autopsy results showed their causes of death as multiple blunt injuries.

A funeral for cousins Donohoe and Burke is planned Saturday at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Cotati, California.

Mendoza reported from San Francisco. Associated Press writers Kristin Bender, Paul Elias, Ellen Knickmeyer, Janie Har and Terry Chea in San Francisco, and Danica Kirka in London contributed to this report.

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