Sunday, April 20, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

No medical issues from lane closures

Emergency data show good fortune in N. Jersey.

Associated Press´ findings could affect the political repercussions for Gov. Christie, a presumptive Republican presidential candidate in 2016.   (AP Photo/Mel Evans, File)
Associated Press' findings could affect the political repercussions for Gov. Christie, a presumptive Republican presidential candidate in 2016. (AP Photo/Mel Evans, File)
Story Highlights
  • Lane closures apparently orchestrated by Christie‚Äôs staff didn't lead to any instances of death or serious injury.
  • An AP review sought to identify emergencies where urgent medical care was affected.
  • The Justice Department and NJ Legislature continue to investigate whether it was political retaliation.

EDGEWATER, N.J. - A traffic jam apparently orchestrated by members of Gov. Christie's staff that caused days of gridlock in North Jersey appeared not to lead to anyone's death or seriously compromise medical care, according to a comprehensive review by the Associated Press of five hours of emergency dispatch audio, interviews, and dozens of pages of call logs.

The lack of life-and-death consequences reflects good fortune, not good planning. It would have been impossible for anyone responsible to have predicted that such exasperating traffic would not cause serious emergencies for police, firefighters, and paramedics.

But the AP's findings could affect the political repercussions for Christie, a presumptive Republican presidential candidate in 2016.

The AP's review sought to identify any emergency situations within a roughly five-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 does not 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 the Bergen County borough of Fort Lee, 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 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 the New Jersey 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 reelection.

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. 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 that 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 Sokolich - 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 it does not blame the delays for her death.

In Palisades Park, it took responders about 30 minutes to respond to a traffic collision in 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.

"She's been waiting for over an hour," the dispatcher said at 6:20 a.m. Sept. 9.

Police in the area, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan, tried to alleviate the traffic, which clogged local roads and created miles of brake lights for days. Just as rush hour hit full swing, a police officer radioed his plans to stop at the bottom of a nearby street and "pull some of this traffic through."

Ten minutes later, dispatchers offered a blunt assessment.

"Fort Lee traffic is a nightmare," one said. "You may want to come through Palisades Park today," an adjacent community.

Jack Gillum and Katie Zezima Associated Press
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