Editor’s Note: Tragedy by the Bay

Editor’s Note: Tragedy by the Bay

Michele Ellson
Crown Beach

We were driving to a Memorial Day picnic when I heard the helicopter, its blades frantically casting aside the blue midday sky in its quest to rescue a man from the chilly waters of the San Francisco Bay.

I was a woman without a country, having shuttered my former news venture a month earlier. But that did not make me want to know what was happening on the beach that helicopter was hovering so close to any less. “Turn around,” I told my husband, directing him to a parking spot far enough from the police cars on the beach that the kids couldn’t see whatever had brought them all there. I hopped out and slogged across the warm, thick sand.

Directly ahead I saw an abandoned volleyball net and surrounding it, clutches of people who looked like they had suddenly forgotten how to play. Police and firefighters lined the beach while passers-by, some with small children, strolled by, oblivious. To my left another clutch, this one of paramedics, hunched over a large, supine figure laying lifeless on the beach.

From one the volleyballers I got the story: A man had walked into the Bay, and he had not walked back out. Police and firefighters had come, but not one had ventured into the water. Over there, she pointed, were people who called 911 on their cell phone and there, the whippet-thin nurse with the strong, clear voice and the firm handshake who had pulled the 6’3”, 280-pound Zack’s body out of the Bay, despite the warnings of police, 22 minutes after he succumbed to the water and the cold.

I clutched my fistful of notes, scrawled on the back of scavenged scraps of paper, and headed back to the car, my husband and kids. As we crawled down Otis Drive to our picnic – Memorial Day has long been about shopping, picnics and NASCAR, two wars notwithstanding – I could feel the knot in the pit of my stomach grow. A man had walked out into the Bay, and stayed there. And the people we are paying to protect us – even from ourselves – had stood on the beach and watched him die.

By week’s end Alameda had earned the scorn of the nation, protestations about protocol and safety and budget cuts trampled in the frenzy of the news cycle and by incredulous pundits looking for fresh meat to feed their ravenous agendas. No one internalized it more than we did, the people of Alameda. A dive shop owner wondered why no one had called him for help. Others had silent conversations with themselves about what they would have done if they had been standing on that beach.

One well-respected community member and frequent volunteer announced to the City Council that she had quit the police department’s volunteer corps. Months later, I received a series of urgent texts from a friend: An apartment building had caught fire and, having vowed that he wouldn’t just stand by if an emergency occurred, he rushed inside.

I looked for something I could do. My notes long gone – fed to a reporter at the newspaper where I used to work – I dove into the details of the case in a personal search for answers. But the details left me with a series of terrible questions.

Why couldn’t the police or firefighters wade out into the neck-deep water – or borrow a paddleboard from the board shop or a spectator nearby – to talk to Zack while he stood out there? And if police were concerned that he was carrying a weapon, why didn’t they get everybody the hell off that beach?

Handling a suicide attempt – and no one’s positive this was one – is complicated, and police couldn’t have forced Zack, who had apparently done this before, to walk out of the water while he was conscious. But why did police and firefighters leave him there when he was not?

City leaders brought in an outside investigator to review what happened, and changes were made. Firefighters and police were trained, and equipment purchased. Our newly installed city manager demanded that police and fire leaders improve relations between the two departments, which were so poor the day Zack died that the police commander in charge wasn’t even aware that the fire department had shelved its water rescue program three years earlier. Our new police chief and fire chief – who was just one week on the job when Zack died – say they took up the challenge, demonstrated by public and not-so-public efforts at building that critical bridge.

Months later came the press releases, detailing one successful water rescue after another. In an interview last week, police and fire leaders said they’re working to rebuild the trust of a community shattered by the tragedy and the people here have been supportive of their efforts.

But those efforts didn’t heal the hurt felt by Zack’s siblings, who sued the city Friday for the suffering – and expense – caused by his death. They’re seeking damages as redress for what they believe was negligence on the part of Alameda’s public safety officials.

Raymond Zack, for whom no obituary was written, was an unemployed 52-year-old Ohio State University business administration grad and a “gentle, nice, sweet man” who lived with a woman who called him her foster son and died praying, with a religious medal in his pocket. This Memorial Day, people are choosing to remember this man who walked into the Bay in different ways.

Some will commemorate his death him by offering flowers as a tribute to the waters that claimed him, while others chose to re-enact his tragic final hour. I will carry the indelible horror of that day each time I visit the spot where Raymond Zack died, its memory flooding my consciousness with every landing of the Bay’s gentle waves.