Gates blocking several Willets Point streets slowed FDNY response to medical emergency: A QNS investigation

Max Parrott/QNS

When exploding tire shrapnel struck a young mechanic in the chest and knocked him unconscious in a Willets Point auto shop recently, emergency responders were stalled by the same gates that block several major streets to the industrial enclave, according to a QNS investigation.

The city erected the gates early in July as part of its ambitious plan to transform the neglected industrial area in Willets Point into three affordable housing buildings, a public park and an elementary school, among other developments to be determined by a city task force. 

But in executing the first phase of the city’s plan, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) made street closures that are financially hurting the shop owners who remain in the Iron Triangle and cutting them off from emergency response services. 

Sam Sambucci, a neighboring auto shop owner, said he timed the response on Aug. 15 at 127-26 Willets Point Blvd. He claimed it lasted almost 16 minutes for the ambulance to navigate around the gates blocking off two out of the four of the streets leading into the Iron Triangle. 

Though the New York City Fire Department’s dispatch report for the tire accident was not perfectly consistent with Sambucci’s timekeeping, both records indicated the response time was significantly longer than the FDNY’s average response time, based on the city’s most recent data. 

For a medical emergency in Queens, the FDNY data shows that it takes an average of 4 minutes and 43 seconds to respond. A spokesperson for the FDNY said that it took them 13 minutes on Aug. 15 to arrive at the scene of the injured mechanic. Sambucci indicated it took 15 minutes and 35 seconds for an ambulance to arrive, based on screenshots he took from his phone timer that QNS reviewed for this report. 

“When it comes to an accident, if somebody had a say a stroke or a heart attack — even if he was bleeding, say he had a bad cut and he was bleeding — 13 minutes, 14 to 15 minutes, you’re dead,” Sambucci said.

The inconsistencies between the two accounts don’t end there.

While the FDNY initially reported that they received Sambucci’s call at 4:09 p.m., they walked it back later, stating that they actually got the call at 4:12 p.m. When asked about the three-minute difference between the conflicting times, the spokesperson clarified that 4:12 p.m. was when FDNY dispatchers assigned the ambulance.

Sambucci disputed not just the timeframe provided by the FDNY, but their sequence of events.

The FDNY claimed that an ambulance was the first vehicle to arrive. On the other hand, Sambucci claimed that a fire truck arrived after 13 minutes of waiting, but the EMS vehicle took another two minutes to get there. 

Juan Alonso, a mechanic who works next door to Sambucci’s shop, confirmed the order of events to QNS and estimated it took 15 to 20 minutes for the ambulance to arrive.

The worker who was struck by the tire ended up gaining consciousness and recovering from the accident by the time the ambulance arrived. But Sambucci said that the incident was a warning call.

If the city does not open up some of the gated streets, a similar accident in the future could be fatal. 

“I’m in no way blaming the fire department for what happened,” Sambucci added. “It’s the city with the street closures and the double-parked cars that caused this.”

After the city closed the south end of Willets Point Boulevard along with 36th, 37th and 38th avenues, the 35th Avenue became the closest street to access the south end of the Iron Triangle. This is a problem because on typical business day 35th Avenue is clogged with triple- and double-parked cars in the street, according to Sambucci.

According to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the gates have been erected after the streets were “de-mapped,” a process through which the city makes streets alterations to the official City Map.

After being asked about how long the city intends to keep the streets gated off, the city’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC), the group overseeing the entire Willets Point development, has not yet provided an official comment to QNS.