Lights set scene for Corzine crash

A conclusive police report on the accident said the governor's driver initiated the chain of events.

Posted: June 29, 2007

Initially, a state police crash investigator found that Gov. Corzine's driver did nothing wrong, despite barreling down the Garden State Parkway at 91 m.p.h. with his police emergency lights flashing moments before a harrowing crash that severely injured the governor.

Instead, the investigator's report said the "primary cause" of the accident was the driver of a red pickup who swerved onto the shoulder and then back to the road, setting off a chain reaction that sent the governor's Chevy Suburban spinning into a guardrail.

More than a week after that report was filed, State Police Superintendent Col. Rick Fuentes said Corzine's driver, Trooper Robert Rasinski, had violated rules and regulations with his driving and would be punished.

In light of Fuentes' decision, the crash investigator, Sgt. Robert Foulks, issued a "change report."

"It is my opinion that the use of emergency lights, in and of itself, did not cause this crash," he wrote. "However, the use of the emergency lights did contribute by initiating the chain of events that resulted in this crash."

The New Jersey State Police yesterday released the finalized reports on the April 12 accident, which also revealed that witnesses gave widely varying estimates of Rasinski's speed.

Two troopers in the "follow car," traveling behind the governor's SUV, both said they were driving "with the flow of traffic" at 65 to 70 m.p.h. Samantha Gordon, a governor's aide riding in the backseat of the Suburban, also described their speed as 65 m.p.h.

But, the SUV's "black box," which records speed and other data, found that Rasinski was driving 91 m.p.h. just before the crash.

Several other witnesses to the crash estimated Rasinski's speed at anywhere from 80 to 95 m.p.h. One driver said the governor's SUV was "flying up the road," according to the reports.

Rasinski told investigators he didn't know how fast he was driving, and he couldn't remember whether the emergency lights were activated.

Corzine, according to the reports, also couldn't estimate speed, "but was confident we were not doing 91 m.p.h. because traffic did not seem to allow it."

Members of the governor's Executive Protection Unit have discretion to speed and use police emergency lights. Rasinski told investigators that he saw the red pickup driving on the shoulder, which he described as not "normal."

"The training and instruction Trooper Rasinski received . . . permits him to exceed the posted speed limit to avoid a potential hazard," Foulks wrote. He did not say if Rasinski viewed the red pickup as a hazard, or if he was speeding merely to avoid it.

But, Foulks concluded that Rasinski's driving fell within "established procedures" and the speed and emergency lights did not contribute to the crash.

Fuentes seemingly contradicted those findings last week, when he said the speed and emergency lights were "unauthorized," and Rasinski lacked the "appropriate level of situational awareness."

The crash on the parkway in Galloway Township happened as the governor headed from Atlantic City to a meeting with radio host Don Imus and members of the Rutgers women's basketball team at the Governor's Mansion in Princeton. Corzine, who was cited in the crash for not wearing a seat belt, told investigators that he was not in a hurry.

"No - there are times where schedules are tight, but this was not one of them," he said.

The red pickup, driven by a 20-year-old casino worker whose name was redacted from the reports, said he steered onto the berm when he saw the governor's SUV behind him. He said he drove onto the grass and was worried about losing control and striking a post, so he steered back into the right lane.

That move forced a white pickup into the Suburban's path, making "minor impact" with the governor's SUV, according to the report.

The Suburban went into a "clockwise yaw" for 50 feet, struck a milepost, then traveled 117 feet before hitting a guardrail, which punctured the passenger cabin where Corzine was sitting. The SUV traveled an additional 35 feet and spun 180 degrees before resting on what remained of the guardrail.

The driver of the red pickup said he saw the crash, but didn't think he caused it, "so he departed the scene and returned home." Police initially described the crash as a hit-and-run before they tracked down the driver and interviewed him.

Although the report describes that driver's actions as the primary cause of the crash, he has not been charged or cited.

Corzine was thrown from the front seat to the rear cargo area of the SUV. He broke more than a dozen bones and spent 18 days recovering at Cooper University Hospital in Camden. He has paid the $46 fine for not wearing his seat belt.

Rasinski, 34, served a five-day suspension. He has returned to driving the governor, and Corzine has expressed his confidence in him.

"Nobody can say he caused the accident," said David Jones, president of the troopers union. "He got hit by the white truck. The white truck was getting out of the red truck's way."


Contact staff writer Troy Graham at 856-779-3893 or tgraham@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Jennifer Moroz contributed to this article.

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