The Intentional Drowning of a Man Has Alameda Searching For Answers

By Steven Tavares
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Raymond Zack waded into the waters of the San Francisco Bay Monday never to come back. He was a sick 53-year-old depressed man diagnosed with a chemical imbalance. The sight of his large body becoming smaller to the eyes of observers standing on Alameda’s Crown Beach has shocked the area for its shocking ineptitude as he slowly walked like John the Baptist searching for renewal in his death while public safety officers did nothing to help him.

“What was going on in his mind when he was looking at these people?” wondered Alameda resident Rosemary McNally, who, herself, is an experienced coldwater swimmer. “They’re not trying to help,” she imagined Zack thinking. “Doesn’t anybody care about me?”

The City of Alameda cut water-based rescue training from its budget in 2009. The Fire Department said it does not have firefighters adequately trained to attempt a rescue operation such as the one that took Zack’s life this week. The size of the victim, who according to the San Jose Mercury News, measured six-foot-three and over 300 pounds was also an issue. Interim Fire Chief Mike D’Orzai told KTVU if the victim was a child, officers on the scene could have attempted a rescue, but Monday’s situation was different because of his size and worries rescue workers could have been placed in danger.

“I find it extraordinarily callous that nobody there with any sort of training could have stripped down and helped that person,” Alameda resident Adam Gillett said Tuesday night at the Alameda City Council. Gillett, who unsuccessfully ran for city council last year called for a criminal investigation of the drowning. “This man didn’t have to die and I think that he did needs more than an apology,” he said.

Alameda Mayor Marie Gilmore Tuesday announced a “thorough investigation is underway” into the inaction of the city’s public safety officials along with immediate changes to its shore-based rescue protocols. The fire department commander on the scene will now have discretion to the enter the water, said Gilmore. “Our goal is to prevent a tragedy like this from ever happening again,” she said. “Since Alameda is an island, we will likely face these shore-based rescue situations in the future, whether they are accidental or intentional.”

The lack of water-based training for public safety officers on the island is yet another in a string of embarrassing and unfortunate political blunders in Alameda over the past two years. A councilwoman was under investigation by the County D.A., the former mayor ran for supervisor shockingly unprepared for the campaign in which she was routed and the former fire chief was caught on video siphoning city gasoline for his own sports car. At the same, constant bickering and the dismissal of its city manager and city attorney have left Alameda as an island of lunacy in an East Bay of relatively tranquil waters.

“I am distressed the most because Alameda has been in the news lately and it seems every time our city comes on the news, it’s something else to embarrass our city,” said Gillett.

The drowning Monday may cause residents of Alameda to begin a long process of soul-searching. The unfortunate death of Zack has quickly become a high-profile lesson for other cities looking to blithely cut programs and services in this still-struggling economy. “This strikes me as not just a problem with funding,” said Gillett, “but what’s going on in this city, that no one would help this man who was in pain.”