SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — If Dolores Berry had been younger, she would have gone after her adult son as he waded into San Francisco Bay to take his life.
Instead, the 84-year-old said she watched along with firefighters and police from the shore as he stood in the frigid, neck-deep water for about an hour before his body went limp.
"I can't even walk. I am too old," Berry told the Oakland Tribune, recounting her stepson Raymond Zack's death on Monday in the waters off Alameda. "But if I could, I would have tried to help him myself."
Berry and witnesses who watched Zack, 52, from the shore have criticized police and firefighters for not intervening to prevent his death.
But experts in water rescues say those officials made the right choice.
"Emergency responders are being made to look like wimps for failing to intervene in an emergency," said B. Chris Brewster, former Lifeguard Chief for the City of San Diego and president of the United States Lifesaving Association. "But I think that's unfair because they lacked the training and equipment."
Brewster said he has heard numerous stories of people who have died while attempting a water rescue.
Would-be-rescuers have to be strong swimmers. They also need equipment such as a buoy that victims can grab instead of trying to climb onto the rescuer. And then there are techniques to get free in case victims start pulling rescuers under or cutting off their air supply.
Alameda fire and police officials have said their crews lacked that training.
Budget cuts forced the Fire Department to discontinue water rescue training and stop maintaining wetsuits and other rescue gear, Interim Alameda Fire Chief Mike D'Orazi has said. That led to a policy forbidding firefighters from attempting water rescues.
D'Orazi has since ordered staff to reverse that rule and plans to train at least some firefighters in water rescues.
"For public safety personnel, one of the biggest causes of death and injury is going outside of your scope of training," Brewster said.
The water that Zack, who weighed about 280 pounds, waded into off Crown Memorial State Beach was approximately 54 degrees. It was too shallow for a boat to enter, according to the Coast Guard. A Coast Guard helicopter was not immediately available.
The beach also did not have lifeguards or rescue equipment, according to park officials.
A lifeguard would have been able to rescue Zack, experts said.
But in those water conditions, even a trained rescuer would need a cold water suit, said B.J. Fisher, health and safety director for the American Lifeguard Association.
"Anything under 80 degrees can put you in a situation that is going to bring your core temperature down," he said.
Fisher said approaching Zack in another type of rescue craft may also have been problematic, as it could have been toppled in the water.
But Berry is convinced her son did not have to die.
"There were kids playing and police and firefighters standing around," she told the Tribune. "Nobody did a thing."
Zack suffered from depression and had been hospitalized at a psychiatric facility last year, Berry told the Tribune. He paced the beach before entering the water and refused Berry's pleas to come home, she said.
"There was something that happened to him," she said. "He wanted to go into the water. God knows why."
Information from: The Oakland Tribune, http://www.oaklandtribune.com
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