Alameda City Council gets earful over drowning


The investigation into the suicidal drowning of an Alameda man is escalating after first responders failed to rescue him. That controversy is becoming more politically charged.

On Memorial Day, Alameda firefighters could only watch as Raymond Zack drowned in the frigid waters of the bay. Fire officials have said budget cuts prevented certain firefighters from being re-certified in land based water rescues. Without certification, the city would be open to liability if they went in to help. Since then, Alameda residents have demanded answers.

"People are devastated, people are talking about it, they are confused and they feel betrayed," said Alameda resident and city activist Liz Williams.

Following the drowning, the mayor and fire chief announced the city will spend the $20,000-$40,000 to re-certify the necessary firefighters. And Tuesday night, the Alameda City Council added the Crown Beach incident on its agenda because there were so many unanswered questions. For example, before the drowning occurred the city had budgeted for eight water rescues.

"I don't understand why you would allocate money for a water rescue when no one was certified to perform them," said Williams.

The mayor and the police department are referring all questions to the fire department, but that department told ABC7 they are not talking until a citywide review is completed.

Another unanswered question is that it appears the Alameda Fire Department waited an hour before reaching out to another agency. The Oakland Fire Department told ABC7 they were requested to help at 12:30 p.m., but Alameda canceled two minutes later at 12:32, because a woman -- a civilian -- was already bringing the body back to the beach.

The Alameda County Fire Department could have been called, but the deputy chief of operations said there was no request for assistance. The county's fire department went as far as putting out a statement to reassure the public they were not called.

"It looks like organizational incompetence from the top down and all the way across," said Alameda resident Denise Lai.

While there is an internal investigation underway, many in Alameda are asking that a third independent party join in and be part of the investigation.

Later at the council meeting, Alameda's mayor officially called for an independent investigation.

A lot of people were hoping to get some answers at the meeting, but Alameda Fire Chief Michael D'Orazi was nowhere to be seen. In fact, earlier this week he announced he is no longer answering questions after ABC7 started asking for explanations and documents. Instead, the city council got an earful from a lot of angry citizens.

"It would be appropriate for this council to call for an independent review," said Mayor Marie Gilmore.

The mayor's suggestion did little to restore the people's trust in their leaders.

"The independent investigation should be conducted by law enforcement, not by you," said Williams to City Council.

"The public's confidence in the fire and police department has been shattered," said Alameda resident Rosemary McNalley.

"I'm sort of breaking with tradition because most firefighters don't talk about other firefighters or police agencies," said former Oakland firefighter Daniel Lisker. He pointed out what he considers obvious failures. "There was no communication with the victim, no perimeter set, and no negotiating with the victim."

Lisker also discounted the explanation that Alameda firefighters were not recertified to conduct water rescues.

"For all the firefighters who were not recertified because of the 'budgetary concerns,' they should have brought it to the attention of the chief of the department and the training division. Many agencies including Oakland and San Francisco would have recertified these people at no cost," said Lisker.

"Not only did they make themselves and Alameda the laughingstock of the nation, they failed to live up to the most basic expectations we would have for them," said Alameda resident Peter Aschwanden.

"He had his hands up. This is the universal sign for help. At that time, he was suffering from hypothermia. We allowed him to die," said Alameda resident Patty Rose.

"We are not hiding behind any documents and I don't think the unjust accusations are warranted," said Councilmember Lena Tam.

The council did not answer any questions Tuesday night and there were no discussion as to who would conduct this independent investigation or when it would occur. Some residents were so frustrated they walked out on the meeting.

Some of the images in the video were obtained from:

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