The Drowning of Raymond Zack
Raymond Zack’s life had fallen apart. He had no job and no one to turn to for help. On Memorial Day, the 52-year-old Alameda man walked fully-clothed into the waters off Crown Memorial Beach to end his life.
Concerned bystanders called 9-1-1. Police and firefighters arrived at the scene within minutes. Even the Coast Guard was summoned. Shortly after 11:30 a.m., Crown Beach was abuzz with emergency personnel and onlookers. For an hour, they watched as Zack stood neck-deep in the water, about 150 yards from shore. It wasn’t until Zach began floating face down in the water that an unidentified woman swam 50 yards to pull Zack’s body to shore. By then it was too late. Raymond Zack had drowned in front of their eyes.
“There were kids playing and police and firefighters standing around. Nobody did a thing,” Dolores Berry, Zack’s 84-year-old stepmother, told the Oakland Tribune. “I can’t even walk. I’m too old. But if I could, I would’ve tried to help him myself.”
Why didn’t the emergency responders enter the water to help Zack back to safety?
Alameda city fire department blamed budget cuts in 2009 that terminated water rescue training for firefighters. “The Alameda Fire Department does not currently have, and is not certified, in land-based water rescues. The City of Alameda primarily relies on the United States Coast Guard for these types of events,” according to a statement issued by the city’s fire department. Interim Alameda Fire Chief Mike D’Orazi said, “The incident yesterday was deeply regrettable. But I can also see it from from our firefighter’s perspective. They’re standing there wanting to do something, but they are handcuffed by policy at that point.”
So what happened to the Coast Guard’s efforts? A 25-foot response boat was deployed from Yerba Buena Island but could not reach the beach due to shallow waters. A Coast Guard helicopter did arrive at Crown Memorial Beach but had to turn back to refuel. “I saw an orange rescue helicopter arrive and hover over where the man had been — but then the helicopter turned and left,” wrote Amy Gahran, a reporter for OaklandLocal.com who witnessed the scene.
That left the Alameda police. Why didn’t police officers try to approach Zack? Alameda police Lt. Sean Lynch offered this explanation: “It’s a very tragic event. But he was engaged in a deliberate act of taking his own life. We did not know whether he was violent, whether drugs were involved. It’s not a situation of a typical rescue.”
Alameda residents outraged
The decision paralysis that led to Zack’s death was embarrassing for Alameda’s first responders and city officials. Alameda’s mayor, Marie Gilmore, has vowed to conduct a “thorough” and “transparent” investigation “to prevent a tragedy like this from ever happening again.” Still outraged residents lashed out during Tuesday’s city council meeting:
Lynne K.: “I’m here tonight to comment on the tragedy at Crown Beach yesterday, the drowning that was witnessed by police and firefighters for an hour. These two agencies could not enter the water due to lack of training in land-water rescue, which is a sad commentary on budget decisions. We live on an island, surrounded by water, where water sports abound such as kite sailing, wind surfing, boating, swimming. The fact that our rescue agencies could not and cannot assist in water rescue because they have no training is unconscionable. Cutting the water program from the budget in 2009 has put Alameda residents and visitors at risk… Alameda police ATVs prowl our beaches in the summer. Yet are you telling us that if an adult or child swimmer is at risk of drowning our rescue agencies will just observe the incident because of a lack of rescue training?”
Adam G.: “I was really distressed by hearing about this news because Alameda has been in the news a lot lately and it seems like every time we come up in the news it’s something else that’s happened to embarrass the city. And this time it was somebody drowning just off shore while our public safety officials stood there and did nothing and watched this man drown… Even though water training was suspending in 2009, I can’t believe that any firefighter at the scene hadn’t been on the force longer than 2009. So it just strikes me as unbelievably callous that nobody there with any sort of training could strip off their gear and go and help this person. Now there were civilians on the scene who offered to help, and they were told no they couldn’t help. This just strikes me as not just a problem with funding but a problem of the culture of what’s going on in our city – that no one would take the time to help this drowning man. This man who was crying out for help, who was in pain and suffering, and we have a problem with the fire department who has done this before… And I don’t think is something that just needs a transparent investigation; I think it needs a criminal prosecution. This man didn’t have to die, and I think the fact that he did is something that needs more than an apology.”
Rosemary M.: “I can imagine the thoughts that were going through that man’s mind as, I understand it, he stood there fully clothed up to his neck in water looking at the people in the shore, looking at those uniforms looking back at him, looking at the regular people on the shore looking at him. What was going on in his mind? I don’t know but I’m just conjecturing. He was depressed. Everybody who’s suicidal felt depressed. I’m thinking he’s standing up there water neck deep just cold – it is cold, it was cold just not freezing cold – thinking “I know this is kind of out of the ordinary. Those people on the shore know this is out of the ordinary, and they’re not even trying to help me. Doesn’t anybody care about me?” That’s what’s going on in my mind when I think of those fireman and those policeman who were there. They could’ve stripped off their jackets, stripped off their weapons, and gone in with their skivvies.”
The angry public reaction was understandable. After all, people depend on police and firefighters to act promptly and help during emergencies, and it’s unnerving to witness them fail at what appeared to be a straightforward rescue operation. To be fair, however, the police and firefighters need to be equipped with the proper tools and trainings to fulfill their roles. Alameda’s budget cuts in 2009 ended land-based water rescue training for firefighters, and the city effectively outsourced its water rescue services to the Coast Guard. The short-sighted budget decisions made by city officials – elected by Alameda residents – had set up the first responders for failure in a water rescue situation. The paralysis that prevented fire, police, and Coast Guard personnel from rescuing Raymond Zack happened because they were trying to figure out the best way to proceed in light of their limitations imposed by budget realities. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to carry out the rescue in time, and Zack drowned as a result.
How Raymond Zack died forced public officials to take a hard look on the impacts of their budgetary decisions. Mayor Gilmore told residents at the council meeting: “We will likely face these shore-based water rescue situations in the future whether they’re intentional or accidental. We’d like to consider how we’re going to allocate our resources so that we could be prepared for such situations in the future.” The only way Alameda residents can ensure that their elected officials are making the right decisions is to stay informed, to speak up, to attend public meetings, and to vote at every primary, every election. Their civic participation can make a difference.
- MercuryNews.com: Alameda: City reviews emergency response after drowning
- InsideBayArea.com: Alameda: Stepmother of drowning victim criticizes emergency response
- Alameda Patch: Man dies in Alameda after walking into bay
- OaklandLocal.com: Local budget cuts turn Alameda beach tragedy into national spectacle
- MSNBC.com: ‘Handcuffed by policy’: Fire crews watch man die
- Alameda city council meeting May 31st (video)
- Alameda City Hall
- Alameda Police Department
- Alameda Fire Department
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