ALAMEDA | Oct. 12, 2011 | The former state fire chief hired earlier this year to investigated the tragic drowning of Alameda resident Raymond Zack faulted the city’s public safety agencies for its inaction and institutional jealousy, but failed to shed new light on why the distressed man could not be saved last Memorial Day.
“I believe the decision was not bureaucratic,” Ruben Grijalva said of the heavily criticized decision to not confront Zack in the bay waters. “I believe it was a safety and training issue.”
“One of the primary things that needed to occur was that initial contact that could have offered him help,” he told the council Tuesday night
Despite initial comments critical of the police and fire department, Grijalva appeared to teeter back and forth to somewhat absolving the organizations. His report was released to the public Sept. 30.
“One of the things widely reported was that the police and fire stood around and did nothing while this incident occurred. My review indicates that is not factual,” Grijalva said. “There was a lot going on and a lot of limitation they had going on, but the response time to the incident was good.”
Councilman Doug de Haan noted many Alamedans continually ask why someone did not attempt to engage Zack. At one point, de Haan asked what would have happened to personnel if they had waded into the shallow water and talked to him. “Would an individual be reprimanded for doing such a thing?” de Haan said. “Are we so stringent that our individual firefighters and police officers are scared?” Grijalva did not answer the question, but said he believes officers at the scene were under the impression additional resources were on the way.
According to Grijalva’s report, help was not on the way and was further stymied by poor communication and historical animosity between police and fire, including an initial conversation conveyed by a fire department commander. “The manner in which that was reported back to them was less than professional,” said Grijalva, “and left the incident commander kind of wondering, ‘What is your role here?’”
Alameda Police Chief Mike Noonan and Interim Fire Chief Mike D’Orazi both took responsibility for the handling of the tragedy. “We apologize to the community. We expect better. You deserve better and from the police department we will get better,” said Noonan. D’Orazi offered his condolences to Zack’s foster mother for the pain she has endured from the ordeal and said step have been taken so it never happens again.
“I’m not here to blame the police department or fire department,” said Dolores Berry, Zack’s foster mother. “They did what they had to do.” She described Zack as quiet. “He didn’t have much to say,” she added. “We hardly ever had a conversation.”
She said Zack suffered from depression and was extremely religious. She strenuously objected to consistent references to him as violent or suicidal. “He was very, very religious and the thought of committing suicide and going to hell would never be a thought in his mind,” she said, “and I know him well.” Several witnesses of the incident at Crown Beach reported Zack was praying in the water while grasping rosary beads.
De Haan also disagreed with the term “suicidal,” as did numerous public speakers. Grijalva said by Zack placing himself in the water, it could be inferred he was suicidal. He stressed it was not reflective on the person, but the situation. By confronting Zack, said Grijalva, they could have better assessed whether he was or not.
Resident highly critical of the incident and of the subsequent report have railed against inaccuracies, they say, is in the document. Specifically references to the water temperature and the probable time frame of survivability. The report lists the waters at Crown Beach at 54 degrees, while opponents say it was over 61 degrees. Despite the fact, the warmer temperature would have given Zack a longer period of survivability, opponents have used information to discredit the contents of the entire report. Grijalva said his lower figure was obtained from a web site, named iwindsurf.com. Sensors around Crown Beach are located near the U.S.S. Hornet, he said.
This will likely not be the last forum of public angst over the death of Zack. An Alameda citizens’ group is calling for California Attorney General Kamala Harris to investigate allegations of corruption between City Hall and the Fire Department. The group is also circulating a petition asking Alameda City Manager John Russo to disband the fire department and merge it with Alameda County Fire. Russo also said he will bring the issue back for council discussion sometime next February.