By JACK GILLUM and KATIE ZEZIMA, Associated Press
EDGEWATER, N.J. (AP) — A traffic jam orchestrated by members of Gov. Chris Christie's administration and responsible for days of gridlock in northern New Jersey appeared not to cause poor medical care or leave critically ill patients dying, according to a comprehensive review by The Associated Press of emergency dispatch audio, call logs and interviews.
The lack of life-or-death consequences reflects good fortune, not good planning. While it would have been impossible for anyone involved to have predicted the gridlock wouldn't have produced serious problems for emergency-services workers, those findings could affect the political repercussions for Christie, a possible Republican presidential candidate in 2016.
The AP's review sought to identify any emergency situations within a roughly 5-mile radius of the bridge closings where a person's life or urgent medical care appeared to have been directly endangered by stalled response times attributable to the traffic jams — and whoever was responsible for them. The review doesn't suggest who was ultimately responsible for ordering the two lanes closed on the George Washington Bridge.
The 911 records, obtained over several weeks through public records requests, included reports of chest pains, traffic collisions, false fire alarms and a dead goose in a parking lot. Officials in Fort Lee, N.J., the epicenter of the serious traffic problems, have yet to release audio from radio traffic among emergency workers during the week of the lane closures, but the AP's review included the dispatch logs of 911 calls that would have been affected.
Christie has since apologized several times for the lane closures and said he was "embarrassed and humiliated" by a former aide who called for the shutdown. Still, the Justice Department and New Jersey's Legislature continue to investigate whether the gridlock was political retaliation against the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, Mark Sokolich, by the Christie administration. The mayor did not endorse Christie's re-election.
It could have been worse. The 911 calls and dispatch logs show that police and emergency medical workers warned of "total gridlock" and pleaded for patience responding to 911 calls around Fort Lee, where streets became a virtual parking lot last September after traffic was unexpectedly backed up leading into New York City.
"The George Washington Bridge is totally gridlocked," a first responder said just before 9 a.m. on Sept. 9, the first day of the lane shutdowns. A few minutes later, a 45-year-old man called to complain of chest pains and said he was resting comfortably on a couch until help could arrive.
"We'll do our best," said the dispatcher in nearby Edgewater. The dispatcher noted the emergency crew was delayed in Fort Lee. The AP could not contact the patient or his family in subsequent weeks because his address and other identifying information were not included in dispatch logs. There were no follow-up 911 calls that morning to indicate rising concerns that the situation was growing more dire as he waited.
Fort Lee's EMS coordinator, Paul Favia, complained in a September 2013 letter to Fort Lee's mayor — before the closures were deemed to be politically motivated — that gridlock was "causing unnecessary delays for emergency services to arrive on scene for medical emergencies within the borough." He described minor delays in reaching the scenes of a traffic collision, a patient suffering chest pains and a 91-year-old woman found unconscious in her Fort Lee home and later pronounced dead, although her family said they don't blame the delays for her death.
In Palisades Park, N.J., it took responders about 30 minutes to respond to a traffic collision in nearby Fort Lee on Sept. 9.
The AP's review found other instances of the backups spilling into nearby towns affecting emergency runs, including an early morning 911 call from a nursing home about an elderly woman who fell and cut her face.