Retired Fire Officer and Demonstrators Reenact Alameda Drowning for Answers

Retired Oakland firefighter demonstrated how he thinks the lifesaving effort should have been led.


SEAN MAHER, Contra Costa Times | | Monday, June 13, 2011

ALAMEDA - How easily might Raymond Zack have been saved from his own shallow-water suicide?

A staged re-enactment of his deadly walk into the waters off Crown Beach sought to answer the question Sunday, with almost a dozen demonstrators wading into the water while a retired Oakland firefighter demonstrated how he thinks the lifesaving effort should have been led.

Both Alameda's fire and police departments have come under national fire since Zack's death on May 30. The despondent, mentally ill 53-year-old stood about 150 meters offshore for about an hour while local public safety officials remained on the sand, citing policy and training issues as the reasons they didn't head into the water to attempt a rescue.

By all accounts so far, fire and police officials never made any contact with Zack -- not even with a bullhorn, which critics say they could have done from the safety of land -- and he died shortly thereafter, his unconscious body finally dragged to shore by a civilian who swam out to him when he appeared to pass out face down in the water.

Daniel Lisker, an Alameda resident and retired fire lieutenant who worked for the Oakland Fire Department for 16 years, said he considered the incident a failure of command, but also "a failure on the part of each and every firefighter who stood on the beach."

Lisker and his colleagues at the department worked in numerous rescues in his days on the job, and he said if he had told one of the firefighters under his command that they couldn't go rescue a drowning man because of a policy problem -- or even a direct order from the chief to lay back -- "they would have flipped off the chief, they would have flipped me off and they would have gone in the water."

In the demonstration, 11 people walked into the water off the same beach as Zack, shortly after 9 a.m. Sunday. They trailed an unspooling rope behind them to ensure they would end up about the same distance offshore.

Meanwhile, Lisker and a few others stood on shore as Lisker demonstrated what he thinks would have been effective leadership, calling for backup from rescue teams from Oakland, Alameda County and the Coast Guard.

"I was always taught to request additional resources. You can always turn them back around," he said. "The commanders in this situation were incompetent, because they did not request the aid in a timely fashion."

In addition, Rosemary McNally -- one of the people who had walked into the water -- had moved almost 200 yards off shore and was never fully submerged. She said the water was calm and shallow and that it would not have presented significant danger to rescuers.

Police and fire officials did not return phone calls asking for comment Sunday, but Domenick Weaver, president of the firefighters' union, had posted a statement to the union's website, saying the guild welcomes the independent investigation Weaver said is being commissioned by Alameda Mayor Marie Gilmore. "In addition to the responders who were on scene, the hearts of all Alameda firefighters go out to Mr. Zack, his family and friends regarding the unfortunate chain of events that occurred," Weaver said.

"Our members have always been, and continue to be dedicated to this community. Not only do we hear your frustration with the situation, we share it. We are people of action. Our frustration and angst is second to none.

"We realize that the community is outraged by the perception of what occurred on the sand of our beach that day and rightfully so," Weaver said.

"Please know that our members are devastated that this incident occurred as it did and have taken immediate steps to work with our new interim fire chief, Mike D'Orazi, to create a policy and training program to make sure that an incident like this can't occur again. That is our promise to you."

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