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Inspectors point to wood rot in fatal California balcony collapse

balconyBERKELEY, California--Wooden support beams sheared off in last week's collapse of a fourth-floor apartment balcony that killed six people in Berkeley, California, were found to be badly decayed, apparently from moisture, city building inspectors said in a report issued on Tuesday.

But Berkeley's director of planning and development, Eric Angstadt, told reporters at City Hall that the balcony as designed should have been sturdy enough to bear the weight placed on it when it failed a week ago.

"I believe from our review of the plans the balcony was constructed to handle the load that was supposedly on it," he said. "The design seemed to be certainly to code to support ... the load."

Authorities have said 13 people attending a birthday party had crowded onto the balcony when it ripped away from the exterior wall of the apartment house and pitched over 90 degrees, spilling everyone 40 feet (12 meters) to the street below. Three men and three women - all visiting college students from Ireland except for one American friend who was with them - were killed in the accident. Seven others were hospitalized.

The inspectors' nine-page report, based on their direct observations in the immediate aftermath of the collapse, did not reach a conclusion about the underlying cause, a finding that will require forensic examination and laboratory tests. However, it cited significant decay visible in the splintered ends of the horizontal support beams that snapped off just beyond the face of the building.

"The inspectors observed that the deck joist ends protruding from the exterior wall appeared to be severely dry rotted," the memorandum said. Dry rot also was found in the joists of the third-floor balcony, which has since been removed.

The report did not directly address how the joists became so compromised just eight years after the five-story Library Gardens apartment complex was completed, but suggested exposure to moisture was to blame. Angstadt said a lack of ventilation inside the balcony structure was "possibly" the cause of excess dampness that led to the dry rot.

The analysis recommended emergency adoption of new building codes requiring greater ventilation of enclosed structures exposed to weather - such as balconies, landings, decks and stairways - as well as more durable materials and inspections of all such spaces within six months.

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