CAMDEN, N.J. — Gov. Jon S. Corzine was apparently riding without a seat belt, in violation of state law, when he was critically injured in the crash of his official vehicle, a spokesman said Friday.
A state trooper was at the wheel and the governor was sitting as usual in the front passenger seat when the SUV slammed into a guard rail Thursday night, authorities said. Corzine broke a leg, his breastbone, 12 ribs and a vertebra.
Corzine, 60, was sedated and on a breathing tube, and a doctor who helped treat him said the governor was fortunate he was not more seriously hurt.
“There’s no way to tell specifically how close he came to more severe injuries, but based on pictures I’ve seen of the crash, I think he’s lucky,” said Dr. Steven E. Ross, trauma chief at Cooper University Hospital.
Ross said Corzine was stable and improving, and could be removed from a ventilator within the next few days. But a spokesman said it is unclear how long it will take before the governor is well enough to return to work.
State police were looking for the driver of a pickup truck they believe caused the crash and fled. That driver could be charged with careless driving and leaving the scene of an accident. The governor himself could face a citation.
New Jersey law requires all front-seat occupants of a vehicle to wear a seat belt. Violators face a $46 fine.
Seat belt citation?
Corzine chief of staff Tom Shea said he did not believe the governor had been wearing his seat belt.
“If he was not, he certainly should have been,” Shea said, “and we would encourage the state police to issue a citation.”
Shea said Corzine usually wears his seat belt. When asked why the trooper who was driving would not have asked Corzine to put on his seat belt, Shea said the governor was “not always amenable to suggestion.”
Corzine cannot speak because of the breathing tube down his throat, and state police said they have been unable to interview him about the accident.
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Senate President Richard J. Codey, a fellow Democrat, took over as acting governor. It is a familiar role for Codey, who served the last 14 months of Gov. James E. McGreevey’s term after he disclosed a gay affair and resigned in 2004.
The accident happened while Corzine was en route from Atlantic City to the governor’s mansion in Princeton for a meeting between the Rutgers women’s basketball team and radio host Don Imus, who was fired for using a slur to describe the athletes.
State Trooper Robert Rasinski was driving the governor’s Chevrolet Suburban when another vehicle, swerving to avoid a pickup truck, hit the sport utility vehicle and sent it off the Garden State Parkway, authorities said. Police following the governor in another vehicle administered first aid to Corzine and called for a helicopter.
Driver also injured
Rasinski also was injured. His condition was not disclosed, but Codey said he was expected to be released from the hospital Friday. A governor’s aide in the vehicle was not hurt, authorities said.
The speed limit was 65 mph. State police said speed was not believed to be a factor, but they had no immediate word on how fast the SUV was going. Shea said he did not know whether its air bags deployed.
Authorities searched for the driver of the red Ford F-150 pickup truck blamed for the wreck, checking video cameras mounted at toll plazas along the highway. The motorist had been driving erratically just before the crash, state police said.
The accident marks the third straight time a New Jersey governor has broken a leg while in office. McGreevey broke his leg in 2002 during a nighttime walk on the beach, and Christie Whitman broke her leg while skiing in the Swiss Alps in 1999.
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