By Gabrielle Saveri
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Officials in the town of Alameda, California, are revising rescue procedures after the suicide of a man who waded into the frigid waters of San Francisco Bay and succumbed to hypothermia as firefighters and police watched from shore.
The tragedy unfolded Monday when emergency personnel were called to a public beach in Alameda, a small East Bay island city near Oakland, where bystanders reported a man had walked into the water up to his neck about 200 yards from shore.
Efforts to coax him back proved fruitless, and the U.S. Coast Guard was called to assist. But without a rescue vessel immediately available, no attempt was made to reach the man until after he appeared to lose consciousness and was seen floating face down, police said.
By then, nearly 45 minutes had elapsed from the time authorities first arrived, said Lieutenant Sean Lynch, investigations commander for the Alameda Police Department.
Minutes later, as the surf pushed the man's body closer to shore, a civilian onlooker finally swam out on her own and pulled the man back to the beach, where emergency personnel tried in vain to resuscitate him, Lynch told Reuters.
Shallow waters prevented a Coast Guard rescue boat from getting close enough to help, and a Coast Guard helicopter called to the scene arrived too late, according to spokesman Marcus Brown said.
"Every reasonable effort was being made to save this individual," Lynch said, insisting there was little else emergency personnel could do without risking their own lives. The temperature of the water was 54 degrees Fahrenheit.
"When you're dealing with a suicidal person, they clearly have shown no regard for their own life or safety," Lynch said. "This is a 300-pound man who is not responding to communication attempts, going farther out into the water. All he has to do is bear-hug an individual and take them down with him.
It turned out that the victim, identified by the Coast Guard as Raymond Zack, 53, had tried taking his own life once before by drowning, Lynch said. On Monday, Zack had told a surfer who paddled out to him, "Go away, leave me alone."
"This is no different from a person going out to the ledge of a building or the tracks of a train," Lynch said. As it happened, he was "using the hypothermic qualities of the water to commit suicide."
Lynch said the police department would conduct "a critical analysis" of the incident to "see if there are things we did wrong or right, with an eye on improvement."
Deputy Fire Chief Daren Olson said another factor was a city policy barring the fire department from attempting to save someone from shore since its water-rescue program was ended some 18 months ago for "various reasons."
"We were unable to maintain the training our rescue swimmers needed to make a rescue in the water," he told Reuters. He said after Monday's tragedy, "We've revised our policy to train our rescue swimmers" and to give on-scene commanders the discretion to order a water rescue if needed.
Mayor Marie Gilmore also weighed in, telling National Public Radio that necessary policy changes would be made.
"We can't go back and change what happened. We can't defend what happened," she said. "What we can do is move forward and make sure something like this doesn't happen again."
(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Greg McCune)