PRINCETON - More than three weeks after a car wreck left him in such "unbelievable agony" that he wasn't certain he would live, a relaxed, smiling Gov. Corzine said in an interview yesterday that he would return to work tomorrow.
With the approval of his doctors, he will resume running the state mainly from Drumthwacket, the governor's mansion in Princeton, Corzine said. He said he had enough energy to focus on issues and duties, but would avoid visiting the Statehouse and making outside appearances because such travel hurts his healing ribs.
And he promised that when he did travel, he would wear a seat belt.
"I guess I just had a false sense of security, which I should never have," he said sitting under a tree in the backyard at Drumthwacket, referring to his failure to fasten his seat belt. "It's a bad example. Believe me, I know what it can do to people. I've learned the hard way."
Before the accident, he said, he infrequently buckled up, except in bad weather, calling himself "a 50-50 guy, at best."
But he said he might go on riding in the front seat, as he was during the crash. "I never liked feeling like I was being chauffeured."
Yesterday was the first time Corzine granted interviews since the April 12 smashup on the Garden State Parkway left him with 11 broken ribs, a snapped left leg, and a broken collarbone and breastbone. Doctors operated on him three times and put him on a ventilator for a week.
The crash also dislocated Corzine's right middle finger, an injury that doctors had not previously disclosed. The finger was bandaged yesterday.
An aide in the backseat and the state trooper driving the Chevrolet Suburban were not seriously injured.
In the interview, Corzine insisted he never paid attention to speed - "I probably should" - and had not realized that his driver, Trooper Robert Rasinski, was doing 91 m.p.h. just before the crash. His motorcade of two SUVs was merely in the flow of traffic, Corzine said. "I don't tell anybody to speed," he said.
When his SUV crashed just before 6 p.m. in Galloway Township, outside Atlantic City, Corzine was on his way to Drumthwacket for a meeting between former radio host Don Imus and the Rutgers University women's basketball team, which Imus had insulted.
Though his staff had said the meeting was at 7 p.m., Corzine said yesterday that it had been moved back to 8 p.m., and that "we weren't pressed for time."
Asked whether he would exonerate Rasinski of any blame in the crash, Corzine said the trooper had not appeared distracted, and "I don't think he did anything wrong."
"He may very well have saved my life," Corzine said, by steering the SUV so that more of the impact from the guardrail was on the driver's side.
The first-term governor and former U.S. senator recalled being engrossed in paperwork when another vehicle swerved and hit the front passenger side of the Suburban, where he sat.
In the next seconds, he recalled, the Suburban went into a spin and slammed into the guardrail. The impact shot the governor into the very back of the Suburban.
"I'm way in the back, my head toward the rear hatch. And I'm in unbelievable agony," Corzine said. "The leg is what catches my attention, physically," but pain was also shooting through his chest.
A fire erupted in the front of the SUV. Then, Corzine said, a bodyguard who had been riding behind the Suburban, Sgt. Jim Ryan, jumped out of his vehicle and crawled into the back of the SUV with Corzine. At the time, troopers were concerned the fire would cause an explosion.
Another bodyguard quickly extinguished the blaze, but Corzine said he was deeply moved that Ryan had risked his life. He called it "one of the ultimate examples of character."
Visitors, including Senate President Richard J. Codey, a fellow Democrat who has served as acting governor since the crash, said the accident had left Corzine a changed man.
Corzine agreed. "Anybody that goes through an experience where you're not certain that you're going to live through the experience, and doesn't grow, and doesn't look at priorities . . . I just don't think you're human," he said.
"I am grateful to be breathing. I'm blessed to be alive."
He praised his care at Cooper University Hospital in Camden, and said he was touched by the get-well wishes from around the state.
He said he was most grateful for his family. His three children, his baby granddaughter, and his companion, Sharon Elghanayan, all visited Drumthwacket yesterday.
On her way out for a walk, Elghanayan said she marveled at Corzine's ability to climb stairs, even though a chair lift had been brought in for him.
Corzine said being able to climb stairs and walk with forearm crutches "was a real breakthrough."
"I'm not looking to run up and down the stairs a whole bunch of times," he said. "I have to be wise about how I use my energy. I'm good for about eight hours, and then I need a break and a little bit of a rest."
His physical therapist is with him almost from the moment he wakes up in the morning, he said. "His job is to make sure that I do what I need to do in the next 30 to 45 days so the next 30 years are healthy."
A multimillionaire who takes a $1 salary from the state, Corzine is paying all his medical bills.
Asked how the accident would affect his gubernatorial agenda, Corzine rattled off the same priorities as a month ago in the same businesslike tone: leasing or selling off state assets, tackling the state's budget woes, ending dual elective office-holding, creating a state energy policy, and launching a health-care initiative he has worked on for months.
"In the next couple of months, I think I actually will be able to be focused on policy," he said.
Once he recovers, will he stop scheduling appearances so aggressively?
"I don't know," Corzine said, allowing that he remains something of a "type-A personality."