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Fort Lee releases dispatch tapes from traffic jams

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KATIE ZEZIMA | AP

FORT LEE, N.J. (AP) — Around 9 a.m. on Sept. 9, someone in Fort Lee, N.J., called for an ambulance.

A dispatch call went out. But the town, and the George Washington Bridge into New York City, was completely gridlocked because of a traffic jam engineered by loyalists to Gov. Chris Christie. And dispatchers soon became traffic officers.

"The George Washington Bridge is totally gridlocked," a dispatcher said, giving alternate directions to a driver to help circumvent the traffic.

Fort Lee released hours of dispatch tapes Friday from the week in September when traffic jams ostensibly orchestrated for political purposes clogged streets and trapped motorists in their cars for hours. Details of many of the calls were previously disclosed in documents and interviews.

The traffic jams occurred from Sept. 9 to 13, and have led to dozens of people being subpoenaed. Those summoned include many in Christie's inner circle, his re-election commission and the state Republican party. At least four people have lost their jobs because of the traffic jams, which were believed to be aimed at Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, who did not endorse Christie for re-election.

Christie has apologized for the lane closures and said he was "embarrassed and humiliated" by a former aide who called for the shutdown. The governor also has said he was not involved and had no knowledge of the lane closures beforehand.

The U.S. attorney for New Jersey and the Legislature continue to investigate.

Town officials have said the traffic jams caused unnecessary delays for first responders. Officials said response times were doubled or quadrupled because of the traffic. A 91-year-old woman died at her Fort Lee home while the gridlock was at its height, but family members have said they don't believe the traffic was a factor in her death.

An Associated Press review of dispatch tapes and call logs and interviews from neighboring towns shows the traffic jams appeared not to lead to anyone's death or seriously compromise their medical care. 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.

Similar calls were received in Fort Lee, including one for a 4-year-old who disappeared from his school. The child was later found safe.

In each town, dispatchers and first responders voiced frustration and exasperation as streets that normally carry heavy amounts of traffic during the morning rush hour turned into virtual parking lots.

Around 7:30 a.m. on Sept. 9, dispatchers were unsure what was causing traffic.

"Do you know if anything happened on the bridge?" one asked. "It's unclear."

A few moments later a dispatcher replied that a new traffic pattern was being tested on the bridge. Officials with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the bridge, had previously said the gridlock was caused by a traffic study. Dispatchers also were trying to get in touch with the Port Authority to ask about the traffic problems.

As the morning went on, conditions got worse.

"Lemoine is packed. Fletcher's packed," a responder radioed in about streets near the bridge in Fort Lee.

The call about the missing student came in shortly before 9 a.m. on Sept. 9. A description of the child, who was wearing a yellow shirt and blue jacket, went out, as did a warning.

"Fort Lee traffic is a nightmare," a dispatcher said.

About 10 minutes later, someone tried to ascertain the scope of the gridlock.

"It's backed up, probably, all the way into Cliffside," he said, referring to the neighboring town of Cliffside Park.

And dispatchers not only had to deal with the usual phalanx of calls for medical help.

"We're getting calls from irate motorists," one dispatcher said.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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