SAN FRANCISCO - 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 brought about by budget cuts strictly forbade them from trying to save the 50-year-old, officials said.
The apparently suicidal man, identified in the San Jose Mercury News as Raymond Zack, was in the 54-degree water for around an hour.
As a result of the incident, the fire department's policy was changed to prevent future occurrences, but it was a challenging incident for rescuers at the scene.
The events of Memorial Day were "very difficult and very regrettable," Alameda Interim Fire Chief Mike D'Orazi told CNN Wednesday, adding that the firefighters on the beach "were incredibly frustrated by this whole situation. They wanted to get in, they wanted to take action."
One witness, Sharon Brunetti, told the Mercury News that Zack's stepmother asked her to call 911 and said he was threatening to kill himself.
He "gradually inched our farther and farther" from the shore, Brunetti told the paper.
"The next thing he was floating face down," she said.
A witness finally pulled his lifeless body from the water.
D'Orazi said Monday's incident is troubling. He 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.