A smooth, quick ambulance transport can be the difference between life and death for patients.
Now, troubling questions are being raised about whether a Chicago Fire Department ambulance actually contributed to a man’s demise after it broke down on a city street while transporting a South Side gunshot victim to the hospital.
The April 4 incident was the latest in a string of mechanical problems with Chicago’s ambulance fleet – problems that are putting fire department employees and the public at risk, according to a Better Government Association/CBS2 investigation.
"There’s no excuse," said Kimberly Simmons, the mother of 22-year-old De’Angelo Simmons, the gunshot victim who was being transported in Ambulance 55 when it impossibly stalled. "An ambulance is supposed to help save lives. . . . They’re supposed to be mechanically fixed to make it."
De’Angelo Simmons lived at 80th and Manistee in the South Shore/South Chicago area. He was near his home around 6 p.m. when two offenders approached the group he was with and at least one of them opened fire, according to police.
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An 18-year-old male was shot in the ankle. De’Angelo Simmons was shot in the abdomen, with the bullet tearing through his stomach, liver, pancreas and aorta before coming to rest "in the soft tissue on the right side of the back," according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office.
De’Angelo Simmons made it back to his block. Ambulance 55 was dispatched there at 6:09 p.m., according to fire department records.
"Everybody thought everything was gonna be OK because he was talking, breathing good," Ronald Holly, a brother of the victim, said in an interview. "He was ready to get up."
Added Kimberly Simmons: "He wanted to get up and I just told him to lay down and be still and the ambulance was coming."
A fire engine with a paramedic on board arrived at 6:15 p.m., according to an audio recording of rescue personnel. That paramedic initiated treatment on De’Angelo Simmons, according to fire department spokesman Larry Langford. At 6:17 p.m., the ambulance showed up, according to the fire records.
After loading him up, the crew headed toward Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Although the medical center was downtown, more than 12 miles away, and Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn was slightly closer, it was a "judgment call" by personnel who thought the ambulance could get downtown quicker at that hour on Lake Shore Drive, Langford said.
While on the way, De’Angelo Simmons’ condition dramatically worsened, with no pulse or blood pressure detected around 6:30 p.m., and cardiac arrest recorded at 6:39 p.m., fire records show.
Five minutes later Ambulance 55 radioed to dispatch that the vehicle stalled at Lake Shore and Randolph in the Loop, according to records and the audio log.
"Our ambulance just broke down," a paramedic said over the radio, according to a recording of the conversation.
A dispatcher asked, "What happened with your rig?"
"We just lost power, shut off, we cannot get it started," the paramedic responded.
Later it was determined a fuel injection problem was the culprit, city officials said.
Ambulance 11 was quickly dispatched to the scene, the audio log shows. And it arrived at about 6:50 p.m., according to records. Within roughly five minutes the patient was loaded up and en route to Northwestern, the records show.
The overall delay from the time of the breakdown to the resumption of the trip in the new ambulance was between eight and 11 minutes. The exact time was unclear because of conflicting city records.
Shortly before 7 p.m., the ambulance reached Northwestern, where De’Angelo Simmons was pronounced dead at 7:04 p.m., according to city and county records. An autopsy concluded he died from the gunshot wound, and the case was classified as a homicide.
Medical experts interviewed for this story said that, given the man’s wounds and condition, he had little or no chance of surviving even if the ambulance hadn’t broken down. That’s echoed by fire officials.
But De’Angelo Simmons’ family members still have their doubts. His mother said she will always wonder "would my baby have lived if the ambulance wouldn’t have broke down."
Especially troubling is this isn’t an isolated incident.
Over the winter, at least two ambulances had tires pop off and another had a door partially come off its hinges. In one of those instances, a patient was being transported but was unharmed, according to the fire department.
After that the city began spot-checking all 109 ambulances on top of the inspections done to ensure the vehicles pass state-mandated examinations every six months. Even with all the checks in place, longtime ambulance personnel said many ambulances are just too old or tired to be reliably used, and the city is trying to squeeze every bit of life out of them to save money.
City officials would not address that claim head on.
But David Reynolds, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Fleet and Facilities Management, said the city is in the process of buying 25 new ambulances at about $140,000 apiece, and they could be in service by January.
"Ambulances aren’t necessarily like your personal vehicle, they get a lot of heavy use. Because they get heavy use they get maintained very often. And they get more repairs than you might expect for your personal vehicle," said Reynolds, whose taxpayer-funded agency is responsible for city vehicle maintenance.
He added, "We do our best to maintain them . . . but any mechanical piece of equipment could break down."
Ambulance 55, a 2007 model with about 120,000 miles, has since been repaired and is back in service.
Police said they have made no arrests in the De’Angelo Simmons murder, which they have said is likely gang-related.