You cannot see him, but Raymond Zack was standing here, about 50 yards off the beach in shallow water.
I've lived in Oakland for a minute now, but I'd never really explored Alameda. So on Memorial Day morning, I set off on my bike to go see the beach there.
I ended up witnessing a slow motion suicide -- and wrestling some fierce inner demons, and playing a bit role in an unfolding national media story.
Here's what happened, and why it matters to Oakland ...
Just before noon on Monday, I was biking along Crown Beach in Alameda when I saw a couple of police cars and a fire truck, lights flashing, parked by the corner of Willow and Shoreline. Several emergency responders and bystanders were peering out into the calm of the bay, just past the short beach.
I stopped and asked a firefighter what was going on. She told me that a man was stranded offshore and pointed out into the water. Squinting, I could see a head bobbing above the waves, about 150 feet out.
"It's shallow out there, he's standing," said the firefighter. And indeed, the man didn't seem to be struggling. But he wasn't waving or shouting for help, either.
More onlookers gathered, and I snapped some pictures with my phone, the only camera I had on me that day. I couldn't get a clear photo of the man in the water, but I photographed the growing crowd -- including the emergency responders, who kept watching, and conferring ... and waiting.
It was then that I overheard some local residents talking about the man in the water. When I asked what they knew, one of them said:
"He was depressed, off his meds, lost his job. He just walked out into the water with all his clothes on. He's trying to kill himself."
This, mind you, was my day off. As a longtime independent media professional, it's been a struggle to get disciplined about taking days off to avoid burnout. Plus I work for Oakland Local, so Alameda isn't really my beat. So I didn't have to cover this story.
But as a journalist, I couldn't ignore it either. So I posted my photos, along with what I knew, to the @oaklandlocal Twitter account (as well as my personal Twitter account, @agahran), just to get the news out and the ball rolling.
As I was tweeting, I started feeling anxious and awful. Not very far away, a man was dying. As I wrote in my personal blog, suicide is a painful issue for me. Last year, I lost a good friend to suicide. And a few years before that, another longtime friend and colleague.
The suicide of someone you care about is stunning. You feel helpless, wondering what you could have done to make a difference, change their mind, step in -- or even to notice they were in trouble. Yet there I was, standing on a beach with a growing crowd that included many emergency responders.
And all of us were watching a man slowly die, not very far away. Occasionally a kiteboarder would glide out, circle him and report back to an officer on shore. But there was no rescue.
Why I didn't cover this story
I admit, my personal emotional reaction to suicide led me to not jump into full-on reporter mode. But I had some rationalizations, too:
So ... If I wasn't going to act as a reporter, then why didn't I act as a person? I can swim, but not strong enough to rescue a grown man. Feeling that vulnerability, I didn't feel entitled to incite others to dive in.
Plus, there were so many responders there, I figured that they certainly must be about to rescue that man soon. I didn't need to see that -- but I especially did not want to watch them drag his dead body to the shore.
So I biked off, over to the coastal trail on Bay Farm Island, across the water from Crown Beach. From there I saw an orange rescue helicopter arrive and hover over where the man had been -- but then the helicopter turned and left. I tweeted that, too. I hoped the man had been rescued from the beach, or swum back on his own. But I didn't believe that, not really.
At home that evening, my fatalistic intuition was confirmed when I heard via Twitter from Alameda resident Pancho Munez: "I believe he drowned. Civilian finally went out to get him." He added: "I saw the whole thing unfold from our balcony on the second floor, I called police, but evidently they were already at the beach."
Soon after that, I got a call from KGO TV, the ABC station across the bay, asking for permission to use my photos from the scene. I said yes, with proper credit and a link (which they did).
The story I missed
The next morning I saw KGO's story on the drowning, and realized what I'd failed to see: This story was not so much about the death of one man, nor about the inaction of city employees -- but how a community gets gradually paralyzed.
I have a lot of respect for emergency responders -- and the ones I saw on the scene in Alameda appeared very concerned about Zack. They didn't appear callous, or evasive. They looked like they were trying to figure out what to do. I just didn't hang long enough to see how long that wait went on.
From KGO, Alameda Patch and other local news sites (including Inside Bay Area, which I also gave permission to run my photo), I learned the reason for the stalled rescue: budget cuts, and fear of being sued.
Specifically, KGO reported:
"The Alameda Fire Department says budget constraints are preventing it from recertifying its firefighters in land-based water rescues. Without it, the city would be open to liability.
"'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 Div. Chief Ricci Zombeck said when asked by ABC7 if he would enter the water to save a drowning child.
"Alameda firefighters could not even go into the water to get the body, so they waited until a woman in her 20's volunteered to bring the body back to the beach."
Why this matters to Oakland
Around the nation, but especially in California, state and local governments have had to make very hard choices about services, including public safety. In this respect, Oakland and Alameda are quite similar.
Oakland's city budget woes are one of the biggest ongoing stories at Oakland Local. My colleagues here -- especially Jennifer Inez Ward, Ruth Miller and Susan Mernit -- have been doing an outstanding job of reporting on this thorny issue and its tradeoffs and effects. Our community and its leaders have been speaking up about budget cuts, both on our site and via social media.
And we've seen the hard choices and dire consequences roll out -- including that the Oakland Police Department decided last summer to stop responding to many "lower priority" 911 calls.
When money's tight, choices get harder, and people get hurt no matter what. People even die. But officials also make some bad decisions when cutting the budget. (Not to point fingers, but Alameda is an island, so why cut training for water rescues?) Also, local agencies and politicos often use budget crunches as cover to play hardball, stage turf wars and gain leverage or quell dissent through threats.
What happened in Alameda is a symptom, and I think the national media coverage is deserved. You might have seen my Oakland Local photos of the Alameda Beach on ABC News, the CBS Evening News, MSNBC, CNN and elsewhere. This issue of hard choices with stressed local public safety budgets is huge, crucial -- and everywhere.
The national media attention to this topic probably will be short-lived, but venues like Oakland Local and our other local news colleagues can -- and will -- keep paying attention, and helping you help your local government make better choices.
Did I miss the story in Alameda? Yes and no. In retrospect, realizing the scale and relevance of what's was happening, I wish I'd stayed and asked more questions. I'm glad my colleagues found and pursued this story.
But I know one thing: The only thing worse than standing by helplessly, watching someone die, is to stand in a crowd that includes emergency responders, and everyone's watching a slow death. I hope never to be in that position again.
Helplessness poisons communities.