Gov. Jon S. Corzine was apparently not wearing his seat belt as required by law when his official SUV crashed into a guard rail, leaving the governor hospitalized in critical condition, a spokesman said Friday.
A state trooper was driving Corzine to a meeting between Don Imus and the Rutgers women's basketball team Thursday night when another vehicle, swerving to avoid a pickup truck, hit the governor's SUV and sent it into the guard rail on the Garden State Parkway.
The crash broke the governor's leg, six ribs, his sternum and a vertebra.
Authorities on Friday were still searching for the red pickup truck, which had been "driving erratically," state Police Capt. Al Della Fave said.
Corzine, 60, did not suffer any brain damage in the crash. But he won't be able to resume his duties as governor for several days, if not weeks, and he won't walk normally for months, Dr. Robert Ostrum said performing surgery on the governor Thursday night at Cooper University Hospital.
Friday morning, the hospital's trauma chief, Dr. Steven E. Ross, said Corzine was stable and improving, and that he could be removed from a ventilator within the next few days. Corzine remained heavily sedated because the pain from chest injuries made it difficult to breathe, Ross said.
Senate President Richard Codey became acting governor Thursday evening after getting a fax from Corzine's office saying the governor had been injured.
"He's in serious shape, but he's alive and going to survive. Hopefully, he'll be back to work in a few weeks," Codey said Friday on WNBC-TV.
Corzine was riding in the front passenger's seat of the SUV when a white pickup truck swerved to avoid a red pickup truck that had moved onto the highway from the shoulder, State Police Superintendent Rick Fuentes said. The white pickup hit the passenger side of the SUV, sending it skidding into a guardrail.
Bobby Juska said he came upon the crash scene shortly afterward and said he saw Corzine's feet hanging out the passenger side window.
"He was screaming, 'My leg! My leg!," Juska said. "He was definitely hurt."
Corzine apparently wasn't wearing his seatbelt, governor's spokesman Anthony Coley said Friday. Seat belts are mandatory for everyone in front seats in New Jersey; the fine for violating the law is $46.
Troopers in a vehicle following Corzine's administered first aid and called for help, and Corzine, the driver, Trooper Robert Rasinski, and a gubernatorial aide were flown by helicopter to the hospital. Rasinski had minor injuries and the aide was fine.
"I believe that Trooper Rasinski should be commended for his valiant attempt to avoid this catastrophe," Fuentes said.
When Corzine arrived at the hospital, doctors said he was conscious but had several injuries: a femur bone broken in two places that had lacerated his skin, a broken sternum, six broken ribs on each side, a head laceration and a minor fracture on a lower vertebra.
Ostrum said a rod was inserted in Corzine's left leg, and additional operations were scheduled for Saturday and Monday. The injuries were not considered life-threatening, but it would be at least three to six months before Corzine could walk normally, he said.
"He's got a pretty significant rehab in front of him," Ostrum said.
The crash occurred around 6 p.m. while Corzine was en route from Atlantic City to the governor's mansion in Princeton to moderate a meeting between the Rutgers women's basketball team and radio personality Don Imus.
Imus was fired from his CBS radio program Thursday amid furor about racially charged comments he made about the team on air. The closed-door meeting went on without Corzine, and lasted for about three hours.
Corzine, a Democrat who gave up his seat in the U.S. Senate to become governor, went into politics after being ousted from Goldman Sachs, where he had been CEO, in a power dispute in 1999. He was elected to the Senate the following year.
The acting governor, Codey, also served as acting governor for about 14 months before Corzine took office last year following former Gov. James McGreevey's resignation over an extramarital affair with a man.
Corzine was the third straight New Jersey governor to break a leg while in office. James E. McGreevey broke his left leg in 2002 during a nighttime walk on the beach, and Christie Whitman broke her right leg while skiing in the Swiss Alps in 1999.