Saturday, April 14, 2007

CAMDEN, N.J. — Gov. Jon Corzine apparently was 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 yesterday.

A state trooper was driving and the governor was sitting as usual in the front passenger seat when the sport utility vehicle slammed into a guardrail Thursday night, authorities said. Mr. Corzine broke a leg, his breastbone, 12 ribs and a vertebra.

Mr. Cor-zine, 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.

Dr. Ross said Mr. Corzine was stable and improving, and could be removed from a ventilator within the next few days. But a spokesman said it is not clear how long it will take before the governor is well enough to return to work.

Dr. Robert Ostrum, who performed two hours of surgery on the governor Thursday night, said a rod was inserted in Mr. Corzine’s leg, and additional operations were scheduled for today and Monday.

State police were looking for the driver of a pickup truck they think 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.

Mr. Corzine’s chief of staff, Tom Shea, said he did not think the governor had been wearing his seat belt.

“If he was not, he certainly should have been,” Mr. Shea said, “and we would encourage the state police to issue a citation.”

Mr. Shea said the governor usually wears his seat belt. When asked why the trooper who was driving would not have asked Mr. Corzine to put on his seat belt, Mr. Shea said the governor was “not always amenable to suggestion.”

Mr. 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.

Senate President Richard J. Codey, a fellow Democrat, took over as acting governor. It is a familiar role for Mr. Codey, who served the last 14 months of Gov. James E. McGreevey’s term after he disclosed a homosexual affair and resigned in 2004.

The accident happened while Mr. 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 Mr. Corzine and called for a helicopter.

Trooper Rasinski also was injured. His condition was not disclosed, but Mr. Codey said he was expected to be released from the hospital yesterday. A governor’s aide in the vehicle was not hurt, authorities said.

The speed limit was 65 mph. State police said speed was not thought to be a factor, but they had no word on how fast the SUV was going. Mr. 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, even checking video cameras mounted at toll plazas along the highway. The motorist had been driving erratically just before the crash, state police said.

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