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?"
Weaver noted that a 2009 policy -- revoked this week -- prohibited firefighters from participating in water rescues. The policy was implemented after budget cuts ended water-rescue training. OK, I counter, but surely some first responders had been trained before 2009.
Weaver's answer: Yes, but they lacked the right equipment.
Weaver assured me that firefighters on the scene feel horrible about what happened.
"Every one of our members who was on that scene wishes that the policy would have allowed them to do something at some point," he explained.
Any firefighter who broke with policy could have landed in a world of bureaucratic payback. That's the problem. No government worker in America gets fired for following the rules.
As Russo put it, "We need an approach toward public service that is less rule-bound and more willing to take risk."
Russo also thinks that if a child were drowning, then some of the first responders would not have hesitated to flout the rules. (That's nice, if a bit unsettling. It's not their job to cherry-pick whom they protect.)
Do budget cuts have a role here? Well, cuts did lead to the no-water-rescue policy in 2009 -- not the shrewdest brainstorm for a city on an island. Said Weaver: "I'm not saying it's the public's fault at all. It's the unfortunate byproduct of diminishing resources."
Such comments only lead some taxpayers to feel like victims of extortion -- that if they don't pay more, they can't even count on basic protection.
On Thursday, San Francisco firefighter Vincent Perez gave his life in the line of duty. The spirit of 9/11 does live.
As for the Alameda firefighters and cops who just stood on the shore and didn't get their feet wet while a man drowned, they have to live with that call for the rest of their lives. They can blame policy, cutbacks or the thankless grind of rescuing unstable individuals who likely will never get their act together -- but in the end, they didn't care enough to do the right thing. Surely, they became firefighters because they wanted to be heroes. But somehow, in some sad way, they turned into bureaucrats.