By Allen Martin

BERKELEY (KPIX 5) — Five of the six people killed in Tuesday’s balcony collapse at a Berkeley apartment complex were Irish students who were in the U.S. on J-1 work visas. It has been a wildly popular program for about 50 years now, and many of those students land in the Bay Area.

Every summer, as many as 8,000 Irish students come to the United States on those J-1 visas, and more than a third of those students come to California.

“To have this happen at the start of this season is something that has left us all frozen in shock, and in disbelief,” said Irish Consul General Philip Grant.

As word of the disaster spread, the phone started ringing at the Starry Plough Pub in Berkeley.

“My phone started ringing, and Facebook, and everybody’s just, 7it’s such a tragedy,” said Rose Hughes, the owner of the pub.

For 35 years, Hughes has owned Berkeley’s oldest Irish pub, and every summer the Irish flood in. “Every year, get the emails looking for jobs to come over and have a good time.  I’ve even had a family member that came over on the visa and stayed,” Hughes said.

Ireland sends more students to the United States on J-1’s, than any other country in the world.

While San Francisco has long had networks for hosting those students, the city’s cost of living has made Berkeley an increasingly popular option for 20-somethings on a budget.

“It’s not always easy, but they come for the fun and if they don’t get work, they’ll go home and have a few weeks of fun anyway,” Hughes said.

Some even credit the annual J-1 migration with the largely positive relationship between Ireland and the U.S. “We have thousands of Irish students that come to the U.S. every summer, for many of my countrymen it’s a formative experience,” Grant said.

“We love to travel, they love to have a good time.  So they come over here, work hard, they play hard,” Hughes said.

Now, the community is mobilizing for the very hard aftermath of a sudden, jolting accident, and the outpouring of help has already started.

“I’ve left my number at the embassy willing to host a family and my friend has also.  If we can help in any way we’re here for that,” Hughes said.