Agonising forty five minute wait for Clonmel family

The ping of a news alert on a mobile phone started the worst 45 minutes in one mother’s life, as reports of last week’s tragic events in Berkeley began to emerge last Tuesday afternoon.

The ping of a news alert on a mobile phone started the worst 45 minutes in one mother’s life, as reports of last week’s tragic events in Berkeley began to emerge last Tuesday afternoon.

It was a normal Tuesday and Tracey O’Keeffe was doing paperwork when her phone pinged. The words ‘Berkeley’ and ‘J1 students killed’ struck terror straight to her heart because in the Californian city, working for the summer on a J1 visa, was her daughter Rebecca.

“You freeze. I felt a terror I never experienced before in my life. Complete and utter terror. I was saying please, please, not Rebecca…” Tracey relived those awful moments when she spoke to The Nationalist this week. She was at work, at Play and Learn crèche, her husband Michael at home. Tracy said she was ready to get in her car and drive to the airport then and there, but her colleagues urged her to wait for some news.

Thankfully Rebecca was at home in her apartment that night, just three blocks away from where the tragedy unfolded as she slept. It was because it was the middle of the night in California that it took so long for Tracey and her husband Mike to contact their daughter.

“We knew she was in an apartment with a balcony,” Michael recalled. “We had 45 minutes when we didn’t know if she was ok,” Tracey added.

Rebecca had been in Berkeley since late in May and had been in constant contact with home through Facebook messages and Snapchat photographs. But she was fast asleep when her parents heard the breaking news of the tragedy and they couldn’t reach her via either communication method. It was only when another Irish person living in her apartment building heard the news and woke everyone up, that she made contact with home.

Then Rebecca texted her sister Rachel, at home in Clonmel, to say she was ok. It was still several hours before she was able to talk to her parents on the phone.

“When I heard her voice I felt overwhelming relief. ‘Hi mum’ were the best words I ever heard,” the memory is still upsetting for Tracey.

“We are eternally grateful Rebecca is ok,” Michael said.

Rebecca knew some of those at the party, but was not there. Since arriving in Berkeley on May 28 she had found a place to live, a job and was making new friends - including Jack Halpin.

Tracey and Michael have spoken to Rebecca a few times since the tragedy. Things in Berkeley have changed. Prior to last Tuesday thee was life, noise, music, everywhere. People were away for the summer and happy. Now the mood is sombre. Rebecca described to her mother how people are moving around in groups, the Irish students seeking comfort in their friends. Some of her friends who had lived in the building where the accident happened were afraid to go back in to get their belongings. Other worried students are trying to find out what companies built the apartment blocks they are living in.

Rebecca went to the vigil that was held in a park near the apartment building and lit a candle for the six young people who died.

Last February Rebecca told her parents was going to America on a J1 visa for the summer. Her school friends from Clonmel went last year but she decided to go this year with her college friends. Rebecca just finished her third year studying intellectual disabilities nursing at DCU. This is her first time going on a J1.

Tracey remembers the early morning saying goodbye at the airport and all the families doing the same thing, telling their sons and daughters to be safe and careful. For a mother some of the adventure was terrifying from the beginning, letting her daughter travel thousands of miles to stay in a hostel and without a job. Then she arrived, got a fabulous apartment and a job. She was ringing home saying she was making friends and meeting people who knew people she knew. They were happier when Rebecca gave them her Berkeley address and when she got a phone they could use to contact her. All her emails and Snapchat photographs home were of an exiting summer, groups of smiling friends and even sunburned feet! She was happy and bubbly, really excited.

USIT, the student travel company that arranges many J1 trips, has told students they can come home, insurance will cover the flight in these circumstances. But Rebecca has decided to stay in Berkeley for the rest of the summer, with her friends. The local community have been so supportive, she has told her parents. Even out for a meal with her Irish friends the waitress in a restaurant, recognising their Irish accents, asked them if they were ok.

“For us as parents to know our daughter Rebecca is safe and well, and also to know there are people out there who are saying to our daughter ‘are you alright,’ it’s nice to know.”

They praised the Department of Foreign Affairs for getting on top of things quickly and getting information out to the students and their famlies, also USIT for emailing the students urging them to ring home to let their families know they were ok.

“You wouldn’t wish this on anyone. We are heartbroken for (the families) and what they are going through. I only had it for three quarters of an hour, I can’t even imagine what those families are going through,” Tracey said. She plans to sign the book of condolence which has opened in Clonmel.

“You have to let them go and live and explore the world. You pray they will be safe and happy.”