On Sept. 11, 2001, when two planes plunged into the World Trade Center, Americans watched in awe as New York firefighters, police and paramedics rushed to the scene at risk to their own lives. Some 343 firefighters and paramedics and 60 police officers paid the ultimate price in their desperate rush to save other lives.
On Memorial Day at Robert W. Crown Memorial State Beach in California, police officers and firefighters stood by as Raymond Zack, 53, stood in the water, apparently intent on suicide, until he drowned. They would not go into the water after him, they explained, because a 2009 department policy prohibited water rescues in this island community. An unidentified woman finally swam out and brought his body to shore.
If the incident brings to mind any news story, it is the 1964 stabbing death of Kitty Genovese -- made infamous because her New York neighbors heard her screams for 35 minutes as they failed to intervene and save her life. This time, I am sorry to report, some of the unresponsive bystanders were firefighters and cops.
How does America go from 9/11 to Crown Beach?
"This was definitely not Alameda's finest hour," observed Oakland City Attorney John Russo, who will become Alameda's city manager on June 13.
Those trying to make sense of the debacle attribute the incident to budget cuts, a bad policy and the fact that saving Zack's life was a risky proposition. Zack weighed 300 pounds. He was suicidal and therefore unstable. If he had been armed and wanted to take someone with him, then it would have been difficult for any would-be rescuers to get away safely.
There's a saying among firefighters: A dead firefighter never saved anyone's life.
But there were enough public-safety officials on the scene to handle one man. According to news reports, firefighters and police watched Zack for about an hour. Domenick Weaver, president of the city firefighters union, estimated a dozen first responders were present. (I do not have an official count. I called the Alameda mayor's office, as well as the Alameda Fire and Police departments and was routed to the same person, who did not return my calls before deadline.) First responders just stood there, when it was their job to save Zack.
Realtor Rosemary McNally told the Alameda City Council on Tuesday that she could not help but think about Zack, standing in the water as his blood slowly ran cold, "looking at those uniforms looking back at him."
He must have thought, she added, "They're not even trying to help me. Doesn't anyone care about me?"