Highbridge fires last week underscore traffic and accessibility issues for first responders

By Camille Botello | March 6, 2023

A double fire near Yankee Stadium in Highbridge last week has renewed what some first responders and locals are calling a major traffic issue in the West Bronx — one that is particularly detrimental during emergency situations.

The FDNY responded to an all-hands blaze at a two-story building at 913 Summit Ave. on Feb. 27 at around 4 p.m., where it took firefighters about an hour to put the flames out. But then the department received a second report of a basement fire at the same location around 6 p.m. that evening. The second event, a two-alarm fire, was under control by about 7:30 p.m., according to the FDNY.  

In total, 12 units and 60 personnel responded to the first call, and 25 units and 106 personnel showed up later to manage the second blaze at the private dwelling, according to the FDNY. The second fire caused one minor injury to a civilian and one major injury to a firefighter, who was transported to NYC Health + Hospitals/Lincoln. 

Agnes Johnson, a Highbridge resident who was in the area at the time of the fires on Monday, told the Bronx Times in an interview that cars were stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the narrow streets in that section of the West Bronx — and that first responder vehicles couldn’t get through. She even saw people get out of their stopped cars and start walking, she said. 

“There was nothing moving,” she said. “It was very, very scary.” 

Johnson was on her way home in a cab on Ogden Avenue when she got stuck in standstill traffic, she said. Although she couldn’t see flames or smoke from where she was caught on the roadway, she said she could tell the jam was caused by a fire near Yankee Stadium. 

“It was like Christmas, all the streets were lit up with flashing lights,” she said.

Johnson said she’s tried reaching out to the city and elected officials, but hasn’t been met with much action. After a call and then subsequent 311 report, she said the commissioner of the NYC Department of Transportation emailed her that the agency had received the report and plans to follow up by May.

What was usually a five-minute ride home turned into a large portion of her evening. Johnson said it took her an hour to inch along Ogden Avenue from 161st Street to 167th Street. all.”

Oren Barzilay, the president of the FDNY’s Local 2507, told the Bronx Times in an email that a few of his field representatives have dealt with congested traffic while responding to jobs in that area. He said crew members have seen cars parked in crosswalks, and that both ambulances and fire vehicles sometimes can’t make turns down certain blocks “that we used to make easy.” 

“The traffic is terrible all over the city now,” Barzilay said on behalf of his crew. “There’s no accountability from the politicians that created this monster. The traffic and medians should be returned to normal immediately.” 

He called the area of last week’s fires a “headache,” and said that the loss of parking spots to allow room for more CitiBikes and bike lanes has contributed to the problem. 

“We run into problems responding to jobs every night,” Barzilay said. “It significantly impacts response times. But the West Bronx … is an absolute s—show.”

He said he’s spoken about the issue in the past, calling some of former NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio’s roadway projects and policies “delusional” as they pertained to the alleviation of traffic congestion. 

James Gilkey, state Assemblymember Latoya Joyner’s chief of staff, told the Bronx Times in a statement that the pol is looking to help resolve this issue. Joyner represents Highbridge in Assembly District 77. 

“We can’t compromise on keeping Highbridge families safe and any traffic congestion that impedes the ability of FDNY and emergency responders to do their jobs is dangerous (to) all of our families,” the statement said. “I look forward to working with the FDNY, emergency responders and the city’s Department of Transportation  to provide relief along Ogden Avenue and other streets that may have traffic bottlenecks in Highbridge.” 

State Sen. José Serrano and New York City Councilmembers Althea Stevens and Diana Ayala had not responded to requests for comment.

Johnson said in the event of an emergency situation, she worries that residents in the area like herself will experience delays in response times and maybe even traffic accidents.  

“This was major, this was a scary thing to see,” the resident said. “This was a wake up call.” 

Another Bronx fire has already made headlines for injuring civilians and firefighters over the weekend. A five-alarm fire caused by lithium-oil batteries broke out at a supermarket at 2096 Grand Concourse Sunday morning, injuring five firefighters, one EMS responder, and one civilian.