Video: Would-be drowning rescuers wrapped in red tape

  1. Closed captioning of: Would-be drowning rescuers wrapped in red tape

    >>> two stories in the news have to do with procedures, rules, and regulations. we're starting with a story out of northern california where rescue crews said they were just following orders when they stood on the shore as a man drowned before their eyes. tom is there for us tonight. good evening.

    >> reporter: good evening, brian. just about two days ago, on memorial day , 50 people on the beach saw a man commit suicide by drowning himself. if that wasn't graphic enough, what happened on the beach was bad. first responders watched himself for an hour drowning in the san francisco bay . they couldn't help him or get in the water. the reason, a cost cutting law that preventing them.

    >> sharon and her husband were there every step 06 the way.

    >> why are we standing here watching nthis happen? we all watched.

    >>> standing next to raymond zach, said to be suicidal, coming from crown beach, going 50 yards, and attempting to drown. the call came in as a woman, but in reality, it was a 52-year-old man. as this photo shows, beach goers watched in disbelief as alameda first responders arrived on the scene and didn't get in the water to attempt a rescue. on the beach that day, zach's step mother .

    >> i think these people are inept, that's what i think.

    >> they said our paolicy is we don't go in the water.

    >> the area was too shallow for a boat, and another helicopter was on another call. two years ago, they put the rescue swimmer program on hold and ordered rescuers to not enter the water until further notice. their rescue boat sits in a dry dock . residents said they had no idea their community had no rescue program. last night, residents wanted answers.

    >> it stieks me as unbelievably callus that nobody there with any training could strip off their gear and go and help this person.

    >> the fire department said they were just following policy. the result of a budget cut.

    >> firefighters were incredibly frustrated. these are dedicated personnel. they want to act. that's what they're trained to do. that's what they spend their time thinking about.

    >> tonight, city officials tell us they are reimplementing the water safety and water rescue program. the city and firefighters will work together to come up with the $20,000 to $40,000 to train first responders and buy equipment so the oath to protect and serve doesn't stop at the shoreline.

    >> story is hard to believe. tom, thanks.

msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 6/1/2011 6:50:39 PM ET 2011-06-01T22:50:39

Fire crews and police could only watch after a man waded into San Francisco Bay, stood up to his neck and waited. They wanted to do something, but a policy tied to earlier budget cuts strictly forbade them from trying to save the 50-year-old, officials said.

A witness finally pulled the apparently suicidal man's lifeless body from the 54-degree water.

The San Jose Mercury News reported that the man, later identified as Raymond Zack, spent nearly an hour in the water before he drowned.

First responders and about 75 people watched the incident on Monday from a beach in Alameda, a city of about 75,000 people across from San Francisco.Witnesses included Amy Gahran, a reporter who photographed the scene from the beach for Oakland Local.

Interim Alameda Fire Chief Mike D'Orazi said that due to 2009 budget cuts his crews did not have the training or cold-water gear to go into the water.

"The incident yesterday was deeply regrettable," he said Tuesday. "But I can also see it from our firefighters' perspective. They're standing there wanting to do something, but they are handcuffed by policy at that point."

But Tuesday night, after hearing from angry residents at a City Council meeting, the city promised to spend up to $40,000 to certify 16 firefighters in land-based water rescues, KGO-TV reported.

"This just strikes me as not just a problem with funding, but a problem with the culture of what's going on in our city, that no one would take the time and help this drowning man," KGO quoted resident Adam Gillitt as saying.

A witness, Perry Smith, said Zack was visible from the shore of Crown Memorial State Beach and was looking at people.

"We expected to see at some point that there would be a concern for him," another witness, Gary Barlow, told KGO.

Witness Sharon Brunetti told the Mercury News that Zack's stepmother stopped her on the beach and asked her to call 911, saying he was threatening to take his own life.

Zack "gradually inched out farther and farther" from the shore but occasionally glanced back over his shoulder at the beach, Brunetti said.

"The next thing he was floating face down," the Mercury News quoted her as saying.

Too shallow for boat
The Coast Guard was called to the scene, but the water was too shallow for its boat. A Coast Guard helicopter arrived more than an hour later because it had been on another call and had to refuel.

As for police, they didn't have the gear for the cold water and couldn't risk being pulled under.

"Certainly this was tragic, but police officers are tasked with ensuring public safety, including the safety of personnel who are sent to try to resolve these kinds of situations," Alameda police Lt. Sean Lynch said.

"He was engaged in a deliberate act of taking his own life," Lynch told the Mercury News. "We did not know whether he was violent, whether drugs were involved. It's not a situation of a typical rescue."

There are no lifeguards at the beach, said Isa Polt-Jones, a spokeswoman with the East Bay Regional Park District. Signs at the park advise swimmers to enter the water at their own risk.

The Associated Press and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.

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