ATLANTIC CITY - Gov. Jon S. Corzine has hailed the state trooper who shielded him from a fire in the governor's sport utility vehicle as a hero who disregarded his own safety to save the governor.
Colleagues of Sgt. Jim Ryan, and Ryan himself, say the trooper was doing what he and others in the executive-protection unit were trained to do in an emergency.
Ryan sprang into action moments after Corzine's vehicle crashed into a guardrail and caught fire April 12. Ryan, who was following the governor's SUV, used his body to shield Corzine from the flames as other troopers doused the flames.
Ryan, a 12-year veteran, did not leave the governor's side until he was being operated on at Cooper University Hospital in Camden.
"This, I have to say, is one of the most extraordinary things I've ever experienced in my life," Corzine said of Ryan's actions that evening. The governor said Ryan "basically put his life at risk at a time when I was helpless."
He praised the trooper over and over again in a series of interviews last weekend, and thanked him again yesterday at a news conference upon retaking control of state government.
Off-camera but in the room, Ryan was even mentioned during an interview Corzine did yesterday morning with the "Today" show.
State Police officials declined to make Ryan available for an interview yesterday, citing the ongoing review of the crash.
In an interview Saturday with the Star Ledger of Newark, Ryan brushed aside the praise.
"That's what our unit does. That's what we're there for," he said. "It was a total team effort. We're all concerned about the governor's safety and it was a team effort."
But Sgt. Stephen Jones said Ryan has received a half-dozen letters of praise over the years for significant arrests and for helping stranded motorists while off duty.
Ryan joined the executive-protection unit in October 2002.
"That's truly where his heart is," said Dennis Hallion, president of the state police sergeants' union. "The first thing is to protect the governor at all costs."
Chris Burgos, vice president of the State Troopers Fraternal Association, said Ryan and others in the executive-protection unit are trained to disregard their own safety.