The Death of Raymond Zack: No Heroes, Only Bystanders

50-year-old Raymond Zack waded into the surf on an Alameda, California beach and stood calmly in the 54-degree water, apparently waiting to die. His suicide took nearly an hour, but eventually he drowned, with no rescue attempts from any of the 75 San Franciscans who gathered on the shore to watch the entire tragedy.

Why didn’t anyone try to rescue the man?

Apparently it was because nobody was paid to do it. You see, stopping Zack from killing himself wasn’t anyone’s job.

The media’s focus in reporting yet another disturbing incident with echoes of the murder of Kitty Genovese has been exclusively on the inert Alameda police and firemen who witnessed Zack’s suicide. “Fire crews and police could only watch,” wrote the Associate Press.

What does the AP mean, “they could only watch”?  Were they shackled? Held at gunpoint? Were all of them unable to swim? They didn’t have to watch and do nothing, they chose to watch and do nothing, just like every one of the bystanders who weren’t police or firemen chose to be passive and apathetic when saving a life required action and risk.

City budget cuts caused the fire department to discontinue water rescue training and stop maintaining wetsuits and other rescue gear, a fire chief explained. “The incident yesterday was deeply regrettable,” Interim Alameda Fire Chief Mike D’Orazi 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.”

Oh, they had to watch because they were handcuffed!  Well that’s another…wait, you mean just metaphorically? Then I repeat: nothing was stopping any of the firemen from rescuing the man, except that it wasn’t in their job descriptions, thanks to the priorities of the local government. What else did the lack of policy mean? Does anyone think for a moment that a fireman or police officer who plunged into the Bay and saved Raymond Zack’s life would be fired or disciplined? He would have been lauded and praised, and the incident would have caused an immediate revision of the new “strict policy,” just as it is doing now, except that a man wouldn’t have had to die to make the point.

This incident isn’t about policy or budget cuts, and it isn’t only about dereliction of duty by the police and firefighters. The unnecessary death of Raymond Zack is about an entire community’s lack of compassion and responsibility for a human being in peril. “Golden Rule? What’s that?” The suicide took an hour: if there was nobody in the gawking crowd who could swim—a proposition that I find unbelievable—, a text message could have had a rescuer there in minutes, presuming anyone in the city cared enough to save a life. Nobody summoned help, or if they did, nobody came.

The Golden Gate Rule: “It’s not my problem.”

“We expected to see at some point that there would be a concern for him,”  Gary Barlow, one of the motionless bystanders, told reporters at station KGO.

Why didn’t you have “concern” Gary? What was handcuffing you?

Apathy. Callousness. Laziness. 21st Century reliance on the government to do what you should do for yourself. Fear. “It’s not my job.” “I didn’t want to get involved.”

“I don’t really care. I don’t know the guy.”

Are the firefighters and police more culpable than Gary and the Bystanders (there must have been a 60’s band by that name, somewhere)? Sure. They are paid to be heroes. They are in the public protection business; saving lives is their profession. For them to be sitting by the dock of the bay while Raymond Zack’s life ebbed away is especially unconscionable. For them, this was every bit as despicable as the Brooklyn EMTs who let a pregnant woman die in front of them because they were on a break, or the Seattle security guards who stood by and watched three girls brutally beat a woman , doing nothing because they were not supposed to get directly involved in law enforcement matters…more despicable, really, because there were more than just a few individuals on the scene with public safety responsibilities, and because the incident unfolded so slowly. OK, the ethics alarms may have been a little rusty, but if they worked at all, why didn’t they ever go off?

And if they weren’t going to go off, if the professionals were going to check their policy manuals and decide, “Nope, nothing here about rescuing people trying to drown themselves!” then they should have left. Maybe that would have roused at least one non-professional hero to do his or her duty as a human being  and member of the community. Or would they, like Gary Barlow, simply shrug and say, “Huh. The police and firefighters left! I expected that there would be a concern. Guess not.”

“I wonder who the Giants play tonight?”

The United States has a daunting mountain of problems. The national debt is poised to crush us, and neither our leaders nor the public appear to have the character or will to address it. The international climate is as dangerous and uncertain as it was during the Cold War, and yet America no longer has the resources, confidence or sense of purpose to assert its traditional leadership role. Major corrosive, long-term crises loom in public works and the transportation infrastructure, the financial sector. the environment, health care and illegal immigration without solutions or even coherent policy in sight. This is all bad enough. But if the United States citizens lose their ability and resolve to do what’s right when fellow human beings are in mortal peril, if our ethics alarms cease to function like they ceased to function on the shores of San Francisco Bay, our society and our culture is doomed. Done. It’s over. And if that’s the way Americans are going to think and behave, it’s just as well.

It is ironic that this revolting display of American callousness occurred so close to Memorial Day. We are losing WW II veterans by the thousands every week, all of whom fought to ensure that there would be an America that acted like America, filled with Americans who had the values of Americans. They wouldn’t have stood by and allowed Zack to drown, and they would have been shocked that Raymond Zack  would be allowed to drown anywhere in the nation. I know my late father, one of whose decorations for valor was for rescuing a fellow soldier trapped in a submerged Jeep, would have acted if he had been on the shore. I once saw him jump into a pond to rescue a little girl who had fallen off a bridge. Was it his job? I know what he would have said.

“Of course it was. It’s everybody’s job.”

Not, apparently, in Almeda, California,in 2011.


[Once again, thanks to Lianne Best for the story. I think. Now I’m depressed.]

NOTE: In an earlier version of this post, I incorrectly attributed the incident to San Francisco, not Almeda. I apologize to the police, fire fighters, and any other San Franciscans who would have tried to save Mr. Zacks.

60 thoughts on “The Death of Raymond Zack: No Heroes, Only Bystanders

  1. I must admit that I have only read about half of the posts listed here, so if my response has been covered previously I apologize.

    As an 18 year veteran of the Fire Dept. and the last ten years as the Officer of a Technical Rescue team that would be responsible for just such a rescue, let me offer another perspective to this ethical question. The Fire service much like many other organizations in recent history are governed by politics and litigation. The management of the organizations are always looking to the risk analysis of any potential situation based of the money that is available. The risk analysis is not based as much on the physical risk as it is on the financial or political risk. Long before this event took place a group of managers, lawyers and bean counters had a meeting and formed this policy based on the available funds that they would have to spend on training. Contrary to some assumptions that I have read here, this type of rescue requires specific training. As a former lifeguard wrote earlier, drowning victims have been known to drown their would be rescuers. In addition, suicide victims have a history of wanting to take rescuers with them. Surfice it to say that I do have real life experience in this area. But this is not the real issue that I want to address.

    Lets say that I, as a supervisor, knowingly and with disregard for the established policy send one of my people into the water; or one of my personnel goes into the water without my knowledge. Lets also say that the rescuer, for whatever reason, looses their life in the water. In this situation, I as their supervisor know that I have not provided them the proper training to deal with the situation. Regardless of the outcome for the suicidal person, how do I, as a professional trained manager/supervisor defend my actions to the following people: my chief, the fire Chief, the mayor/county Executive, my surviving crew, the spouse or the children of the Firefighter, a judge. Does anyone believe the group I outlined above will meet again and decide that out of the goodness of their heart they will overlook my decision to disregard the policy that they put in place to protect themselves; when the widow sues the jurisdiction? Who answers to the widow when they are alone six months from now and the world has forgotten about the sacrifice?

    Raymond Zach made a decision to be in that water. We are a country of freewill. The political process made a decision that the cost was to much for the risk that the Firefighters would actually need to be trained to make this rescue. Management made a decision that the risk was to great to allow a Firefighter to get into the water because they knew their personnel were not trained. That is why the policy was written.

    Heroism comes in many forms, and that title gets thrown around quite abit, but sometimes the heroic decision is not apparent at first glance. I have no connection to the Firefighters that were there that day, but I will tell you that each one of them will live with the image of what happened that day. The Officers that were there that day will have to live with not only the death of the victim but also the guilt of what their crews think of their decision. Sometimes , as Officers, we need to be able to accept that we cannot control every situation; and we cannot save everyone. Particularly the ones that mean to do harm to themselves. What I can control is that no one else will die today. As Fire/Rescue Officers we have to make life or death decisions every day we go to work; sometimes that means limiting the number of people that die.

    Before you pass judgement on these Firefighters and public servants please remember that we generally only get one chance to be wrong. We try to manage when that wrong decision will come and avoid it. My family becomes the next victim if I go to jail for being negligent.

    • There is another side to this story that won’t receive much public attention due to HIPPA & hospital/fire department/police confidentialty protections: it is quite possible that Mr. Zack was very well known to the local police, fire, and psych emergency services and therefore the risks of attempting his rescue were known and unavoidable.

      I’m a nurse in a local psychiatric emergency services department and have many “regulars” who are brought in to the hospital because they have called 911 to report suicidal ideation and then proceeded to physically fight the medics, police, nurses and doctors they come into contact with. The reported suicidal thoughts & gestures are not a “cry for help”, but part of a profoundly disturbed and manipulative attempt to up the ante to get admitted to a psychiatric hospital, where the bizarre behavior continues (e.g. cutting themselves, swallowing small objects, hitting, biting, or spitting on staff in order to be put into restraints).

      The fighting can include using their substantial heft (Mr. Zack was 300lbs) to defy staff direction and safety rules. I’ve known too many nurses who have suffered life-long back injuries trying to restrain someone who is volitionally putting themselves and others in danger. It’s a complicated dynamic that police/fire/hospital staff are very familiar with, but not too well-known to the general public. It’s really hard for a lay person to imagine that there are super-toxic and manipulative people out there, but a good starting point is googling, “Borderline Personality Disorder” and reading up on other personality disorders. Then, when you read something in the news that is outlandish or hard to believe, consider that there may be much more to the story than reported…

      • I am a student nurse.
        Mr. Zack is suicidal. I should help him .
        Mr. Zack is drowning. I should save him.
        Mr. Zack is dying. I should revive him.
        Mr. Zack is being ignored. I should give him my attention.
        Not because I’m a student nurse and I know first aid, but because I’m human.
        There were 75 people, with fire fighters and policemen. One man.
        In the hospital, there were 5 nurses, one man.
        So don’t say I’m a nurse if you don’t know what it means to be one. And don’t say that THOSE GESTURES ARE NOT A CRY FOR HELP, because they do it because THEY NEED HELP and MEDICAL ATTENTION. You should know. You’ re a nurse. But don’t be just a nurse. Because it means nothing.

  2. ABC asked Zombeck whether he would save a drowning child and he said: “Well, if I was off duty I would know what I would do, but I think you’re asking me my on-duty response and I would have to stay within our policies and procedures because that’s what’s required by our department to do.”
    – Alameda Fire Division Chief Ricci Zombeck
    ABC KGO 7:

    This quote essentially makes any indefensible defenses, or apologetics for how big and scary the victim was, moot. Perhaps they should make off-duty the new on-duty by assigning first repsonders to permanent off-duty roles. At least then they would go in after a drowning child.
    It is now clear that every officer or fireman on the scene works for a coward and can only save their honor by laying down their badges to people (perhaps the brave 20 year old woman who fished the body out, who also had no formal training or certification) who are willing to follow through the task of risking and perhaps laying down their lives and future pensions on the job.
    Chief Zombeck has proven to be an ineffective and unremarkable leader and a disgrace to all of the men and women who never made it home from their shifts in the line of duty as cops and firefighters. I would advise the on-scene officers to follow the lead of their Fire Chief Ricci Zombeck in resigning, but he would never hand over his paychecks that easily.
    Perhaps they need to be paid less, because the military doesn’t have this problem of cowardice, and we start off making barely one-fifth of an Alameda fireman (adjusted for 2009 Military pay rates). Note the starting salary for a fireman on the scene is close to $80,000 (2009, as per link at the bottom). I’m glad I never had to serve with any these heroes of public service.
    More than anything, it is a privilege to serve one’s community or country, but only if one is to do so honorably. Otherwise it is safe to assume you are just there to collect a paycheck.

    Click to access Fire_Department.pdf

  3. Alameda County Fire Dept (which handles 9-1-1 dispatch responsibilities for Alameda City as well as many FD’s in the county) has had hundreds of emergency responses which were delayed and/or inappropriate resources were sent over the last few years. Sometimes, the patient died. Like one 10 year old girl in Pleasanton whose heart stopped. The ambulance was like 30-45 minutes late, and she didn’t make it. Everybody knows response times matter. Of course some patients will die no matter how fast you get there and even if you do everything right. But FD’s that don’t sent the right help in a timely manner? That should be illegal! Here, the city of Alameda (on an island no less) decided they did not need water rescue capabilities. The FD was correct to not enter the water (the mud there is like quicksand, without the right equipment the ff’s would most likely have died). This was a police matter anyway. A potentially violent and believed to be armed 300 pound man who wants to die. But cops are not trained for water rescue. So the solution is obvious – Alameda City Fire incident command calls dispatch and says notify the coast guard (3 minutes away), and when they find out the coast guard doesn’t have a shallow draft boat avail you call Oakland Fire or Alameda County Fire. Both those depts boats, less than 20 minutes away. Throw a couple of cops on the boat with a couple FF’s and problem solved. Duh!

  4. i don’t give a shit weather they were not able to get water rescue training or not they are here to protect not let us die. if it was me standing on the shore i would not have watched that poor soul die i would have gone in after him and tried to save him. i don’t care if i lost my job or not a life is worth more then someones job. i would have risked my job for that mans life. everyone of those bystanders need to be slapped. someone could have at least tried to save him. i have not been so upset with the law and firefighters ever in my life.

    • I agree, and do not worry, what goes around comes around. I bet the bystanders do not feel so proud of themselves now for showing no compassion for someone who was already suicidal, they evoked someone who was suicidal to become even more so, not something to be proud of, I want to hear all their pathetic excuses. “I didn’t know him, so why should I care?” “It was not my job to help him.” “I was relying on someone whose job was to help him. “Suicidal people are weak.” Please, spare me.

      “We expected to see at some point that there would be a concern for him,” Really, Gary, what was stopping you from helping him? By not helping him, none of you seemed to have a concern for him. You knew he was probably going to kill himself, yet you did not even try to talk him out of it. You could have at least said, “Please, don’t, man! That is not the answer.” Yet, what did you all do? You all provoked the suicidal man with more reasons to become even more suicidal. Do you feel proud of yourself now, you schmuck? Suicide means death, and it is quite sad, sick and scary, that none of you got that. I know what happened, you all stood there, being entertained by what was going on, probably secretly hoping he would die, probably being amused by it, probably cheering it on. He wanted to kill himself, and that means nothing to you? Suicide is not something to take lightly. Seek some help, and you could tell all the other bystanders who “cared” that. There were over seventy five of you, and none of you had the compassion to help a man in need. It is not that comforting to know that over that many people would do that to someone. What if it were you, or someone you cared about? You think about that. The price will be paid, and you can mark my words on that.

  5. For those of you too weak-stomached to assign blame to the “heroes” who stood by making no effort to fulfill their duties and want to assign the blame to the victim, how do you respond to a similar scenario at Google “Austin Anglin” and “Camano Island” if the link is dead. This is yet another example of how we have come to expect nothing from the “Public Safety” services we pay so dearly for. A lot harder to blame the victim in this case so how do we excuse them in this one?

  6. Read about this article yesterday, and it broke my heart. I read on another article only about thirty people attended his funeral. Fuck, poor man, I know he was suicidal, but why did no one care? Why did NO ONE help him? The only person who did was the nurse who swam to him, and the surf-boarder helped in a way since he might have gone out there to comfort him. He was trying to commit suicide, as dozens of people watched, doing nothing, even the police officers and firefighters were there not doing anything to save him. Perhaps they did not know how to react, but it was more than two hours, and I do not believe that they wanted to do something, but did not. I bet if it were someone they knew or cared about, they would have helped the person. This is just so heartbreaking, I am shocked beyond belief. I hope everyone who witnessed it felt ashamed, they should, if not already. If you are reading this, then screw you, just screw you. You probably knew that the man was suicidal, and you did not even care, not one of you, you just stood and watched, probably hoping he was going to die, probably cheering it on and laughing about it deep inside. Do you realize what you have done? You witnessed a man trying to commit suicide, and you did nothing to comfort him in any manner, you could have at least shouted “Don’t do that, please!” But, no, you did not, you just stood there and watched as if it was some sort of entertaining film, all 75 of you, and the police officers and firefighters who came to rescue for no reason. You PARTICIPATED in making a suicidal man even more suicidal, realizing the possible outcome, you dismissed a death, and you did not just make things worse for him, but his family and friends as well. Do you feel proud of yourselves, you schmucks? But, hey, “I don’t really care, I don’t know the guy.” I hope you all read this and feel ashamed, and I hope the family does get the money, so much money for all I care, it might be too late for the man, but there will still be justice, and this will come back and haunt you. You evoked a death that was probably going to happen anyway, even after all this time, and you probably still do not get it. Showing no compassion for a poor soul, wow.

  7. I know this is an old article, but it’s new to me, and perhaps people will learn something from my comment about the duty of police to protect us.

    Many people will be surprised to learn that the police have no Constitutional duty to protect you from harm, thanks to a 2005 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court (for which the majority opinion was written by the slug Antonin Scalia). The ruling effectively removes any duty that the police have to protect a citizen, unless the police have specifically offered in advance to protect a specific individual.

    The case was Castle Rock vs. Gonzalez, decided in 2005.

    What that means is that if a police officer sees you being robbed and beaten, he has no legal duty to assist you — UNLESS you were previously told, specifically, that the police would render protection to you in the event of such an attack.

    Another example: if you have a stalker, and the stalker attacks and is killing you, and a police officer happens to see the attack, he does not have to take any action to save your life —- unless, again, the police had already offered to protect you from such an attack.

    • That’s a gross misrepresentation of the opinion. There is no absolute duty to act: police need and have discretion, that’s all. It doesn’t mean a police officer is right or competent not to act, just that, as a matter of law, a citzen can’t sue because he didn’t act. There was a precedent involved, and the court didn’t buy the attempt to get around it. The margin was 7-2…you can’t blame Scalia.

      • Yes, the decision was 7-2, I was just showing my disdain for Scalia, who I find to be repulsive, acting more on behalf of his party and ego than on behalf of the Constitution and country.

        Regardless, I didn’t grossly misrepresent the opinion: the decision removes any duty a police officer has to protect a citizen. It is widely understood to have this effect. The court found that a citizen’s expectation to be protected by police (even if had such protection been mandatory in the case) is nonexistent because it has no monetary value.

        So the Court’s refusal to”buy the attempt to get around it” was by deciding that the police don’t have to protect citizens because there is no money, therefore no property, involved. Sure sounds like the Court found a way to get around the lower court’s decision.

        Bottom line: if you have a restraining order against someone and they come and throw you in the trunk, and you call police on your cellphone and tell them where you are, SCOTUS has decided the police have no duty to do a thing about it. THAT is what the decision established.

        • There is so much wrong with your comment that it would take a book to cover it, but I’ll try the short route:

          1. “…acting more on behalf of his party and ego than on behalf of the Constitution and country.” That’s just partisan slander on a brilliant jurist. There is nothing in Scalia’s record or opinions that suggests that he skewed his legitimate and good faith legal analysis “on behalf of his party.” It’s a slur on an honorable, lifetime public servant who has given the benefit of his courage and legal expertise and study to his country. As for ego—-a Supreme Court Justice without a strong ego is fairly useless. Winning legal debates requires certitude and fortitude, and ego is dispensible.

          2. “the decision removes any duty a police officer has to protect a citizen.” This is an ethics blog, buddy: “duty” is not defined as solely legal duty. Many essential duties are not constitutionally mandated. Even then your Cliff Notes summary of the holding is dead wrong. The decision removes the right to sue when a police officer exercises discretion not to act, even if the decision was flawed. That’s not the same thing. Not at all.

          3.”The court found that a citizen’s expectation to be protected by police (even if had such protection been mandatory in the case) is nonexistent because it has no monetary value.” No, the Court found there were no civil damages, rendering the law suit moot, because there was no monetary harm, or harm that could be monetized. Again, not the same thing.

          4. The precedent the plaintiffs tried to get around was another Supreme Court decision which set precedent, not the lower court.

          5.”THAT is what the decision established.” No, it didn’t It established that there was no constitutional breach that had a remedy in court. The whole area of sovereign immunity is baroque one, but one of practicality: you can have a functioning government where citizens can sue every time they believe that the government didn’t do what it was supposed to do. And the Court cannot carve out exceptions for every ugly combination of facts. This was a hard case that made crummy law, but the alternative would be an avalanche of litigation. It’s unfair for the plaintiffs in this case, but the majority was right.

  8. I know this is old, but I want to add:

    “Contrary to what Alameda fire chief said, rescue swimmers were funded”

    I find it very sickening especially that this case is used to justify police inaction and to prove that :”the police are not required to protect you”.

    Even more sickening is how people justify the Police and fire department’s action even though:

    “The day after Raymond Zack died off the Alameda shoreline, Mike D’Orazi, interim fire chief, told the Alameda City Council that budget constraints led to the loss of the department’s water rescue ability: “We just did not have the money available to do what we would like to do.”

    But the 2009 memo indicates money was available — and, in fact, $20,000 from the current budget is being used to do the training.”

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