Fire crews and police could only watch after a man waded into San Francisco Bay, stood up to his neck and waited. They wanted to do something, but a policy strictly forbade them from trying to save the 50-year-old, officials said.
A witness finally pulled the apparently suicidal man's lifeless body from the 54-degree water.
Interim Alameda Fire Chief Mike D'Orazi said Monday's incident is troubling. He has directed staff to write a new policy that would allow water rescues in the city of about 75,000 people across the bay from San Francisco.
The previous policy was implemented after budget cuts forced the department to discontinue water rescue training and stop maintaining wetsuits and other rescue gear, D'Orazi said Tuesday.
"The incident yesterday was deeply regrettable," he said. "But I can also see it from our firefighters' perspective. They're standing there wanting to do something, but they are handcuffed by policy at that point."
A witness, Perry Smith, told a television station the man was visible from the shore of Crown Memorial State Beach and was looking at people.
"We expected to see at some point that there would be a concern for him," another witness, Gary Barlow, told KGO-TV.
The Coast Guard was called to the scene, but the water was too shallow for a boat, Alameda police Lt. Sean Lynch said. Police officers didn't have the gear for the cold water and couldn't risk being pulled under.
"Certainly this was tragic, but police officers are tasked with ensuring public safety, including the safety of personnel who are sent to try to resolve these kinds of situations," Lynch said.
D'Orazi said crews may have decided it was too risky to attempt the rescue, even if they had not been shackled by the restrictions on water rescues.
In addition to the new policy, Alameda fire personnel will receive training in water rescues, and rescue equipment will be inspected to make sure it is not damaged, D'Orazi said.
There are no lifeguards at the beach, said Isa Polt-Jones, a spokeswoman with the East Bay Regional Park District. Signs at the park advise swimmers to enter the water at their own risk.