Residents of Alameda, Calif., an island city just east of San Francisco, are demanding answers after a man drowned at a city beach in full view of police and fire personnel.
Witnesses say an apparently distraught Raymond Zack, 53, paced back and forth along the beach just before noon on Memorial Day. He then waded into the frigid San Francisco Bay.
Zack stood about 50 yards offshore in neck-deep water for about an hour before his head disappeared below the water. Police and firefighters who had responded to a 911 call about the suicide attempt stood on shore watching and making no attempt to rescue or even contact Zack.
Interim Alameda Fire Chief Mike D'Orazi said a 2009 policy forbids firefighters from rescuing people in the water.
"Previously we had a very highly trained water-rescue program that we could use for both shore-based and boat-and-surf water rescue," he said. "But unfortunately, over the course of several years based on what I gather on budget issues, they pretty much de-certified the program."
A police spokesman said officers didn't help because they feared Zack might become violent.
The Alameda City Council got an earful from incredulous residents at a meeting Tuesday night.
"This just strikes me as not just a problem of funding, but a problem with the culture of what's going on in our city," Adam Gillit said. "That no one would take the time to help this drowning man."
Adding to the outrage was the fact that even after the tide brought Zack's dead body back near the beach, an unidentified passer-by had to swim out and pull him ashore.
Alameda Mayor Marie Gilmore said the city will immediately implement a new policy allowing an on-scene commander to decide how to respond to water distress calls.
"This is a really tragic incident. We can't go back and change what happened. We can't defend what happened," she said. "What we can do is move forward and make sure something like this doesn't happen again."
Gilmore also said the city council would restore funds for training in such emergencies. Thus far, 16 firefighters have volunteered.