Praise for trooper was premature

TRENTON, N.J. – It was an ominous tale – an erratic driver in a red pickup racing wildly along the nation’s busiest toll road sends the governor’s sport utility vehicle careening into a guard rail.

But that story, relayed hours after Gov. Jon Corzine was critically injured, has been debunked by a new state police report detailing how his driver was dashing with emergency lights flashing at 91 mph in a 65 mph zone. The alleged erratic driver wasn’t a villain but a young man trying to get out of the way of the governor’s onrushing SUV.

Corzine’s driver, state trooper Robert Rasinski, 34, has also come under scrutiny for allowing the governor to ride without a seat belt, a violation of state law. Corzine remained in critical condition on a ventilator Wednesday with 11 broken ribs and a severely broken leg; Rasinski wore a seat belt and walked away from the crash.

State Police Superintendent Col. Rick Fuentes defended his initial praise of the trooper, whom he said “should be commended for his valiant attempt to avoid this catastrophe” immediately after last week’s accident.

“In some respects you have the fog of war there in the beginning,” Fuentes said. “You have a very major event. You have a lot of different variables in that event. The investigation is at its very earliest phase and things are going to change.”

State Police Capt. Al Della Fave said he didn’t know if Rasinski requested Corzine fasten his seat belt, but said a state police review board will decide the trooper’s responsibility for both his driving speed and Corzine’s failure to wear a seat belt.

Rasinski could be disciplined if the board determines the crash was preventable, Fuentes said.

Corzine was heading to the governor’s mansion April 12 for a meeting with Don Imus and the Rutgers University women’s basketball team when he crashed on the Garden State Parkway north of Atlantic City. His SUV was in the left lane with its emergency lights flashing when a red pickup tried to get out of its way.

But the pickup’s right wheels went onto the grassy highway shoulder, and the driver overcorrected, swerving back on the road. That set off a chain reaction: A white pickup truck swerved to avoid the red truck, struck Corzine’s sport utility vehicle and sent it careening into a guard rail.

Officials have said the 20-year-old driver of the red pickup wouldn’t be charged because he didn’t know he caused the accident. State motor vehicle officials said he got his driver’s license last year, and state police said his inexperience contributed to the perception he was driving erratically.

The driver of the white vehicle also wasn’t charged.

Fuentes said the governor’s executive protection unit is trained to move through traffic by increasing their speed and activating flashing lights when necessary.

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