ALAMEDA | The death of Raymond Zack on a bright Memorial Day in 2011 brought unwanted national shame upon the island community of Alameda when it became clear members of the police and fire department sat idly and watched the large 53-year-old man drown in the bay waters at Crown Beach.
On Monday, an Alameda County Superior Court judge sided with the city in a lawsuit filed by the survivors of Zack and found public safety officers had no duty to save the deeply-depressed man who waded in waist-deep shallow waters, rosary in hand, for 45 minutes, before drowning himself.
Despite the embarrassing scene of police officers and fire firefighters standing motionless on the beach as Zack died, Judge George C. Hernandez wrote in his ruling Monday afternoon, “The court finds that under the circumstances presented, there was no moral blame attendant to the conduct of responding officers and firefighters,” according to The Alamedan.
An investigation into the handling of the tragedy found long-simmering discontent between the island’s fire and police department’s worsened communication during the tense ordeal. A memorandum sent by a former fire chief two years earlier found the department had quietly discontinued training for water rescues in 2009 and boats were not readily available for such a catastrophe.
In the days following Zack’s drowning May 30, 2011, the story of public safety officials, at first glance, seemingly looking askance at their jobs to protect and serve the community while a resident died, attracted the national attention of news outlets like the Associated Press and USA Today. In many ways, the ordeal ripped the fabric of the small island community’s sense of itself, while questioning how it could have happened in the first place.
While the judge’s decision found no liability on the City of Alameda’s part, nonetheless, significant changes have already been made for how police and fire are trained to respond to a similar incident in the future.
At a public meeting in October 2012, Alameda Police Chief Michael Noonan and Fire Chief Mike D’Orzai apologized for the episode and pledged better communication and coordination between their respective departments, along with the purchase of rescue boats.