ALAMEDA, Calif. (AP) — Officials in the San Francisco Bay area city of Alameda said Tuesday they plan to seek an external review of the actions of police officers and firefighters who stood by as a suicidal man waded into the bay and drowned.
Alameda Mayor Marie Gilmore announced the independent probe at a meeting where nearly two dozen residents accused the city's public safety agencies of incompetence, heartlessness and complicity in the Memorial Day death of 52-year-old Raymond Zack.
"While we appreciate police and fire and know they are doing their own investigation, this has been such an extraordinary situation by any way you could possibly begin to describe it, I know I believe an independent review is warranted," Gilmore said. "The only way the city of Alameda can give our citizens the credible assurance that something like this doesn't happen again is to find out what happened, when it happened and to make changes."
Zack waded into the bay's shallow, 54-degree water fully clothed and remained there for nearly an hour before a female bystander retrieved his lifeless body. By most accounts, up to 75 people, including firefighters and police officers summoned by an emergency call, watched from Crown Beach as he slowly succumbed.
Alameda's acting fire chief said afterward that the firefighters on scene were not authorized to perform water rescues because of budget cuts. The police chief said officers did not have cold water gear and did not know if Zack posed a danger to potential rescuers.
Several speakers at Tuesday's meeting said the incident had shaken their faith in their island city of 74,000 located across the bay from San Francisco.
"Mr. Zack had his hands up, he had his hands up. This is a universal sign of help. At that time he was suffering from hypothermia. We allowed him to die," resident Patty Rose told the council. "I would not let anyone in this room die. I would not allow a dog to drown on that beach, but we killed him. Shame on us."
Daniel Lisker, a retired Oakland Fire Department lieutenant, said the decisions made by the police and fire commanders in charge that day raised troubling questions about the city's ability to protect its residents in the event of large-scale emergencies.
Lisker questioned why the police did not try to communicate with Zack using a bullhorn from shore and the fire department did not ask neighboring departments with certified swimmers or boats for help.
"What concerns me was this incident was an easy to manage incident that turned out tragically for this man because it was not handled professionally," he said.
One witness who was on the beach watching Zack and thought about going in after him until the officers and firefighters arrived said he felt guilty for not intervening.
"I thought, 'Well, the water is very shallow and you would have to go way out, and in the meantime the police and fire would come and they would take care of it," resident Warren Brunetti said. "And within five minutes they did and he was maybe up to his chest and he was standing there. But they didn't do anything."
Acting City Manager Lisa Goldman said 30 firefighters have since volunteered to undergo water rescue training and the city fire chief announced last week that commanders would again have authority to send crews into the bay. The first 16 will start their training next week, Goldman said.
She said the city also plans to make transcripts of all 911 calls and emergency communications before Zack drowned public later this week, along with a timeline of how the events unfolded.