Corzine crash: No seat belt

A top aide says the governor apparently wasn't wearing one. He was in critical but stable condition at Cooper.

Posted: April 14, 2007

Gov. Corzine apparently was not wearing a seat belt in a Thursday evening crash on the Garden State Parkway that left him in critical but stable condition this morning with a dozen fractured ribs and a broken leg, collarbone, breastbone and vertebra.

Corzine remained heavily sedated on a ventilator in Cooper University Hospital's intensive care unit, and underwent surgery this morning to remove debris from his leg wound. His doctors have scheduled a noon briefing after the operation. The governor faces another surgery on Monday.

"Based on the pictures I've seen of the crash, I think he was lucky," said Steven Ross, head of the Cooper University Hospital trauma unit in Camden.

Former governor and current Senate President Richard J. Codey will serve as acting governor for "certainly several days, possibly a week," said Corzine's chief of staff, Tom Shea.

"We won't know that until we know really what the governor's prognosis for recovery is going to be," Shea said at a Statehouse news conference.

"He certainly needs the ability to concentrate and focus and communicate in order to effectively carry out the duties of his office. And I think only time will tell how long that takes for him to be able to do that again."

Shea added that it was possible that Corzine would be mentally alert and able to work from home or his hospital bed before he is physically able to travel to the Statehouse.

"He has been briefly conscious," Shea said. "I don't expect, and I don't think the doctors would expect, that that would happen with a tremendous amount of frequency over the next couple of days."

Corzine can communicate by nodding his head, Ross said yesterday. But his injuries are "extremely painful," said Ross. "It hurts to breathe."

Corzine also had head lacerations that required stitches, aides said.

An official familiar with the governor's condition said Corzine would likely be in a wheelchair for several months.

The air bags of the 2005 black Chevrolet Suburban did not deploy when it rammed a guardrail on the parkway with Corzine in the front seat. The governor was en route to the governor's mansion in Princeton to host a meeting between the dismissed radio show host Don Imus and the Rutgers University women's basketball team that Imus insulted last week.

Shea said that Corzine apparently was not wearing a seat belt at the time of the crash, though another aide saw him wearing a seat belt earlier in the day.

"If he was not, he certainly should have been, and we would certainly encourage and expect the state police to issue a citation," Shea said. State law carries a $46 fine for not buckling up.

Would state troopers be expected to tell the governor to buckle up? Shea said that the governor "was not always amenable to suggestion."

Codey, a fellow Democrat who was governor for 14 months after the resignation of Gov. Jim McGreevey, said it was not unusual for governors to ride in the front of their trooper-chauffeured vehicle. He said he often did so - and always wore a seat belt.

"New Jersey is rooting for Jon Corzine," said political analyst David Rebovich, "but I think lots of people fully expect him to appear in public service announcements warning people not to make the same mistake he did."

Yesterday, the state trooper driving Corzine's SUV was released from Cooper. Officials refused to disclose Trooper Robert Rasinski's injuries at his request. Earlier, Rasinski, 34, had been seen by hospital staffers wearing a neck brace.

Corzine's personal assistant, Samantha Gordon, who was in the back seat, was not seriously injured in the crash. Codey said she was sore and traumatized but otherwise fine.

State police were reviewing images taken by toll plaza cameras in hope of catching the driver of a pickup truck believed to have caused the accident by cutting off a white Dodge Ram, which swerved into the path of Corzine's two-car motorcade and sent the governor's driver swerving into the guardrail.

A state police spokesman, Sgt. Stephen Jones, said it is a red Ford F-150 or F-250 pickup from the late 1980s or early 1990s, with a cap on the back and New Jersey license plates.

The driver of the Dodge, John M. Carrino, 24, of Glenwood, Sussex County, was interviewed by police.

The area where the wreck occurred is not known for accidents, Jones said, and he continued to say that the caravan was not speeding: "The governor's SUV and the follow car were going with the flow of traffic."

The air bags in the Suburban did not deploy, Jones said, because the first impact was a glancing blow off the right front fender from the Dodge Ram. The Suburban then smashed into a guardrail, with the impact on the driver's-side front wheel.

Witness Bobby Juska told the Associated Press that he came upon the crash scene shortly after it happened, and saw Corzine's feet hanging out the passenger-side window.

"He was screaming, 'My leg! My leg!' " Juska said. "He was definitely hurt."

Two state troopers were following the governor's SUV in another vehicle known as the "chase car." Sgt. Jim Ryan and Trooper Erin Smith administered preliminary medical aid and called for a state police helicopter. Corzine was airlifted to Cooper because it is South Jersey's designated Level 1 trauma center, hospital officials said.

Shea said Corzine was conscious before being sedated for his surgery, speaking to the troopers and doctors. State police plan to interview Corzine for the accident investigation when they can.

Corzine had had a busy day Thursday, crisscrossing the area from the funeral of a slain FBI agent in Pottstown to a political announcement in Bergen County and speeches in Atlantic City.

Shea said Corzine's schedule had originally been planned for private helicopter, but that heavy rain had forced Corzine to travel in a two-car motorcade.

The crash happened in Galloway Township just after 6 p.m. Corzine had been expected at the mansion, Drumthwacket, at 7 p.m. Princeton is at least 85 miles from Galloway.

The accident will postpone for the second time a trade mission Corzine had been planning to make to Israel this weekend. He had previously put it off to shepherd property-tax bills through the Legislature.

Two of Corzine's three children, Jeffrey Corzine, 24, and Jennifer Pisani, 36, were with him yesterday at Cooper, and Pisani called her father "a fighter." The third, Joshua Corzine, 30, who lives in California, was traveling to see him, as was the governor's girlfriend, Sharon Elghanayan, 61, who had been out of town.

Shea said that Corzine might not be the easiest patient.

"I wouldn't want to be his doctor, let's put it that way," Shea said. "He certainly will be a stubborn and determined patient as it relates to getting himself back up on his feet."


Contact staff writer Elisa Ung at 609-989-9016 or eung@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Jennifer Moroz contributed to this article.

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