Stepmother of Calif. drowning victim criticizes emergency response

Fire department has since instituted an immediate policy change after the death of Raymond Zack

By Peter Hegarty and Kristin Bender
Contra Costa Times

ALAMEDA, Calif. — For much of Monday morning, Dolores Berry watched helplessly as her depressed and despondent adult stepson stood in neck-deep waters off a bustling Alameda beach, raising his arms above his head at times, and then floating 150 yards into the icy bay waters.

Nobody — not firefighters, police, passers-by or Berry, 84, — moved into the 55-degree water to try to pull the 280-pound, suicidal man to safety.

"I can't even walk. I am too old," said Berry, during a tearful interview at her Alameda home Wednesday. "But if I could, I would have tried to help him myself."

Berry said her 52-year-old stepson, Raymond Zack suffered from depression because of a chemical imbalance. He had been hospitalized at the John George Psychiatric Pavilion in San Leandro last year after he went missing from their home and police found him at Robert Crown Memorial Beach, the same place where he walked, fully clothed, into the tide about 11:30 a.m. Monday.

Zack was in the water for about an hour, but he had been pacing the beach — possibly praying — before he stepped into the tide. Police and firefighters said they arrived within minutes of receiving the 911 call from a woman who said Zack was attempting suicide at the beach.

Firefighters did not go into the water because they are not trained in land-water rescue and don't have a boat that could maneuver into the shallow waters. Police officers did not enter the water because they did not know if Zack was suicidal and possible armed and violent.

"It should never have happened," Berry said. "I don't want anyone else to go through what I went through, watching that."

Much like what happened in South Fulton, Tenn., last October when firefighters stood by as a man's home burned to the ground because he hadn't paid the $75 fire protection fee, the small island of Alameda has been thrust into the national spotlight as a place where those who are charged with protecting and serving didn't do either Monday morning.

"There was absolutely no reason for that boy to die," Berry said.

Berry said she figures people, including police and firefighters, were on the beach for about two hours.

"Two long hours. There were kids playing and police and firefighters standing around. Nobody did a thing," she said.

Zack eventually stopped walking about 150 yards from the shore, when the water was up to his neck, police said.

A young woman finally swam out to get him when he began floating face down and his body was about 50 yards from the shore, a witness said. The woman was not available for comment Wednesday, but has been hailed a "good Samaritan."

The decision by emergency personnel to remain on the beach and not dive in to help immediately prompted an outcry from the public, who complained to the Alameda City Council Tuesday night that an island surrounded by water needs to have a comprehensive water rescue program.

Interim Fire Chief Mike D'Orazi said he was instituting an immediate policy change that would allow a senior firefighter to decide how to best respond to an emergency in the water. A rescue swimmer certification program for Alameda firefighters, which was axed about two years ago during budget cuts, would be reinstated, D'Orazi said. Mayor Marie Gilmore also called for an investigation into what happened.

Berry believes Zack died from hypothermia, a condition where a person's core body temperature drops below the required temperature for normal metabolism and body functions. But a final cause of death won't be known until an autopsy is completed Thursday, said a spokesman from the Alameda County Coroner's Office.

Berry said she met Zack because she was friends with his mother, but became close to him in the 1990s, when they worked together at St. Vincent de Paul. Zack moved in with her about 20 years ago when he lost his job. She said he was not currently working and was on disability when he died.

"He had a heart of gold -- as big as he was," Berry said, referring to the 6-foot-3, 280-pound man.

Monday started badly when Berry discovered about 8:30 a.m. that Zack was not in his bedroom at their Alameda home. A woman who also lives at the house searched for him, and found him at a shopping center near the beach.

Zack, who had often been quiet and withdrawn, refused to come home and said he was going to the beach. The woman went home and picked up Berry, who arrived at the beach and pleaded with Zack to return home. He again refused.

"There was something that happened to him. He wanted to go into the water. God knows why."

Along with Berry, Zack's survivors include a brother, Robert, and a sister, Bernice, cq who live out-of-state. Details about a possible memorial are still being finalized.

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