EDGEWATER, N.J. – A traffic jam deliberately orchestrated by members of Gov. Chris Christie's staff that caused days of gridlock in northern New Jersey appeared not to lead to anyone's death or seriously compromise their 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-or-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 real-world 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 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.
"She's been waiting for over an hour," the dispatcher said on Sept. 9 at 6:20 a.m.
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 in 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.
Said another: "You're all aware the town is in total gridlock, right?"
Six commuters who were late to work have filed a lawsuit in federal court against Christie, his former aide and officials at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Two Fort Lee plaintiffs said their pay was docked because they were tardy.
A former Christie loyalist has said "evidence exists" the governor knew about the closures as they were happening, although he did not accuse Christie of ordering the traffic problems or knowing about them beforehand. In a statement, Christie's office denied the allegation made on behalf of former Port Authority executive David Wildstein.
Documents released in early January showed Wildstein, as Christie's No. 2 man at the Port Authority, ordered the lane closures starting Sept. 9. That was about one month after receiving a text message calling for traffic problems from a Christie administration aide, Bridget Anne Kelly, who was later fired.
Dispatchers sent an ambulance to the Cliffside Park home of 91-year-old Florence Fogarty on Sept. 9 after she fell.
"I was pleased with the service," Fogarty said, saying she doesn't remember any unexpected delays. Logs show that it took responders about one minute to get to her house.
Gillum reported from Washington.