Breaking News
More () »

No training, no life preservers and a rescue boat a mile away: Questions remain after a homeless man drowns in Tempe

The city says it will review its rescue plans after Sean Bickings drowned.

TEMPE, Ariz. — Just before he drowned, Sean Bickings begged for help that would never come.

Officers were called to the Elmore Pedestrian Bridge after a Downtown Tempe Authority ambassador reported a disturbance between 34-year-old Sean Bickings and his companion on May 28.

RELATED: 'Please help me': Bodycam transcript shows man pleaded for officers' help before drowning in Tempe Town Lake

Officers told the couple they were running their names through a database to check whether people have outstanding arrest warrants. Officials said the check was not complete when Bickings slowly climbed over a 4-foot metal fence and entered the water. 

Bickings tells police he was “Going for a swim.” Officers told him he was not allowed to but did not detain him.

City officials said he swam about 30-40 yards before indicating he was in distress. 

According to a transcript released by Tempe Police, Bickings begged for help in the water.

The transcript reads in part:

Bickings: I’m drowning. (inaudible)

Officer 2: Come back over to the pylon.

Bickings: I can’t. I can’t. (inaudible)

Officer 1: Okay, I’m not jumping in after you.

Victim: (inaudible) Please help me. Please, please, please.

In a press release, the Tempe Officers Association says officers are not trained for water rescues. They said attempting a high-risk rescue could result in an officer’s death. Instead, officers followed protocol and went to get a boat. 

“I don’t think this had to happen at all,” Tatiana, a friend of Sean said. 

Tatiana said the Tempe homeless community knows Sean as Mad Rocks. She says he was nice with a sense of humor. 

“He wouldn’t call it being homeless, he would call it an extended camping trip.”

"Sean Bickings was a wonderful person." Ben Jeffery, another friend of Sean, said. 

Jeffery said he lived with Sean on the streets for 3.5 years. Jeffery said Sean's life could have been saved if there were life preservers that could have helped prevent him from drowning. 

“How come there is no life-saving equipment, as far as the eye can see, in case there is an accident?” Jeffery said. 

According to the city, there are no life preservers around Tempe Town Lake. Officers also do not have them in their vehicles. 

“What he said in his last words was 'help me, please.' Had there been something available to help him, we wouldn’t be doing this interview,” Jeffery said. 

The city does have two rescue boats, one belongs to the police, the other to the fire department. However, both boats sit in a marina on the north side of the lake. That marina sits nearly a mile from where Bickings drowned.

According to information provided to 12 News, the boats are not manned until a call comes in. 

“If they were trained a little bit better with better equipment, I think this story would have been very different.”

On Monday - Tempe said it is now examining how they handle these rescue calls and if officers or the area needs rescue equipment.

Other questions 12 News asked have gone unanswered. We do not know when the police first reached out to have a rescue team. We do not know how long Sean struggled as officers waited. 

How long did Sean struggle while seemingly nothing was being done?

Tempe says it could take weeks to complete the final review.

VERSIÓN EN ESPAÑOL: Sin entrenamiento, sin salvavidas y con un bote de rescate a una milla de distancia: Surgen preguntas después de que un hombre se ahogara

Up to Speed

Catch up on the latest news and stories on our 12 News YouTube playlist here.

Before You Leave, Check This Out