Gov. Jon S. Corzine was not wearing a seat belt and was sent hurtling into the back seat when his SUV tore into a guard rail along the Garden State Parkway Thursday night, according to two people who were with the governor in the hours after the crash.
One hospital source also said Corzine is in worse condition than has been publicly acknowledged, and that he could be in a wheelchair for six months.
All the sources spoke on the condition they not be named out of respect to the governor.
Anthony Coley, the governor's spokesman, was questioned about the seat belt issue at a press conference outside Cooper University Hospital in Camden just before lunchtime Friday.
"It does not appear that the governor was wearing a seat belt," Coley said.
Corzine remains in critical but stable condition in the hospital's trauma ICU, with more than a dozen broken bones -- including 12 ribs and a femur protruding through the skin of his thigh. A doctor said he is heavily sedated and lucky to be alive.
At the press conference, Steven Ross, head of the trauma unit at Cooper, said Corzine is unable to speak.
"He has a tube in his throat," Ross said. "He can not talk, but he's able to answer simple yes and no questions about whether he's having pain and (things) like that."
"Based on pictures I've seen (of) the crash, I think he was lucky."
He "has had severe trauma." The broken ribs, Ross said, are "extremely painful. It hurts to breathe."
Corzine's daughter, Jennifer, said she and her brother, Jeffrey, visited with the governor and "we had a really good vibe from him. He's a fighter.
"So we really believe he's going to be okay."
The 60-year-old governor underwent about two hours of surgery last night following the accident near milepost 45 in Galloway Township. Corzine, sedated and on intravenous painkillers, required seven pints of blood, officials said. The breathing tube eases his respiration with the broken ribs, and a broken breastbone. He also suffered a broken collarbone and lower back bone and a flap-like cut on his skull, which a plastic surgeon stitched back together.
Coley said the governor did not appear to have suffered brain or spinal cord damage.
Robert Ostrum, chief of orthopedic trauma surgery at the hospital, said the governor will need more surgeries, probably tomorrow and Monday, because of the femur fracture that pushed the bone through the skin of his leg. The doctor said Corzine faces three to six months of rehabilitation. "He won't lose his leg; he will need extensive physical therapy," he said.
Responding to a reporter who asked whether the governor was fortunate to be alive, the doctor was terse and certain.
"Yes," he said.
Doctors inserted a metal rod in Corzine's bone and fastened it in place with screws. But they did not put a cast on his leg or close the wound. For now the leg is wrapped in a bandage because the doctors will have to surgically cleanse the wound to prevent infection from setting in.
Senate President Richard Codey (D-Essex) assumed the duties of acting governor last night. This morning, Codey said he expected Corzine to be out of action for seven to 10 days. This will be Codey's third stint as acting governor.
The New Jersey State Police this morning gave a more detailed description of the truck whose driver is being sought in connection with the accident.
The truck is described as a late 1980's or early 1990's model Ford F150 pickup truck, said Sgt. Jeanne Hengemuhle, a state police spokeswoman. The truck is believed to be a two-wheel drive model with faded red paint and a white or red cap.
State police say the driver of the red pickup entered the northbound roadway from the shoulder just past mile marker 44, and crossed into the path of a white Dodge Ram truck. The Dodge then swerved in front of the governor's SUV, colliding with the governor's Tahoe and sending it careening onto the highway and into a guardrail. The driver of the Dodge remained on the scene, but the pickup truck driver continued north on the Parkway.
State Police are reviewing footage from cameras placed along the roadway in a search for more information on the car and are interviewing other motorists driving along the roadway at the time.
"Anything we can get our hand on, we're looking into," said Hengemuhle, a state police spokeswoman.
The crash occurred about 6 p.m. as Corzine's two-car motorcade was heading north to Princeton after a long day of travel that included appearances in Pennsylvania, Bergen County and South Jersey.
Corzine was sitting in the front passenger seat of the black Chevy Tahoe, alongside his driver, Trooper Robert Rasinski, according to New Jersey State Police Superintendent Rick Fuentes. In the back sat Samantha Gordon, an aide who typically accompanies Corzine when he travels beyond the Statehouse.
Jim Freund, a second lieutenant with the Great Bay Regional Volunteer EMS, arrived to see the governor's SUV teetering on the twisted guardrail and medical technicians removing Corzine on a backboard.
"He was conscious, but he was moaning," Freund said.
Rescue personnel then loaded Corzine into an ambulance that shuttled him about 100 yards north on the roadway to where two State Police helicopters were waiting.
Neither Rasinski, 34, nor Gordon, 25, was seriously injured, but they were taken to Cooper University Hospital for evaluation, officials said. Fuentes said the trooper had minor injuries and was resting comfortably.
Fuentes said investigators didn't believe speed played a role in the crash.
"From our preliminary investigation, it looks as if the trooper did a tremendous job in maintaining what control he could over that vehicle, given the fact that the other vehicle swerved into his path," he said.
State law requires all front seat passengers to wear a seat belt or risk a $46 fine, said David Wald, a spokesman for the attorney general's office. Wald said it was too soon to determine whether Corzine would be ticketed.
"If that is the case (that he wasn't wearing a seatbelt), he would be subject to a ticket," Wald said. "But based on the investigation so far, we have not determined whether he was wearing one or not. The investigation is still ongoing. There are still people we have to interview."
Corzine became the third New Jersey governor in eight years to suffer a broken leg. Christie Whitman fractured a leg skiing in the Alps in 1999. Three years later, her successor, James E. McGreevey, suffered a broken femur after falling during a jog on a Cape May beach.
Corzine, an Illinois native and Democrat who made millions on Wall Street before winning a U.S. Senate seat in 2000, became the state's 54th governor last year. Since taking office he has worked out daily, though he frequently complains he'd like to exercise even more.
On days when his schedule requires him to be in several areas of the state, Corzine typically relies on a State Police helicopter. But bad weather yesterday forced him to travel by car, aides said.
At the time of the accident, it was not raining and the pavement was dry, officials said.
The motorcade left the governor's mansion, Drumthwacket, in the morning for Pottstown, Pa., where Corzine attended services for FBI Special Agent Barry Lee Bush, a New Jersey-based agent who died during an attempted bank robbery in Readington Township last week.
The governor then returned to northern New Jersey, joining Bergen County Democratic Organization chairman Joseph Ferriero for a news conference in Hackensack. The afternoon was spent in Atlantic City, where Corzine participated in a forum on property tax rebates for renters and spoke to the New Jersey Conference of Mayors at the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort.
He made his last appearance of the day just after 5 p.m. on the Pinky Kravitz show on WOND 1400 AM radio.
The accident slowed traffic as troopers closed one lane of the northbound Parkway for about four miles.
"I saw tons of smoke coming from the bottom of the vehicle," said Mark Fishman of Rockaway, who with his wife was driving home from Atlantic City around 6 p.m. "It had to have happened 15 to 20 seconds before we got there."
Corzine had been en route to Drumthwacket to moderate a meeting between radio shock jock Don Imus and members of the Rutgers University women's basketball team. Deputy chief of staff Jeannine LaRue took his place instead.
He was scheduled to leave tomorrow on an official trade mission to Israel, a trip that now seems unlikely.
As Corzine underwent surgery, Codey, the acting governor, said: "On behalf of the citizens of New Jersey, I want to wish him a speedy recovery."
-- Contributed by Deborah Howlett, Jeff Diamant, Ted Sherman, Josh Margolin, Dan Murphy, Maryann Spoto, Brian Donohue, Joe Donohue, George Berkin, Michael Wattkis, John P. Martin and Angela Stewart.