Crown Vic fire forever changes police officer

After 43 operations, cop caught in blaze is rebuilding his face, life

December 9, 2003

BY JENNIFER DIXON
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER

PHOENIX -- Jason Schechterle was burned so badly when his Crown Victoria Police Interceptor caught fire that the flames mangled his hands, seared away most of his nose and ears and scorched his brown eyes, leaving him blind for seven months.

Forty-three operations and more than two years after a taxi plowed into the rear of his police car at a Phoenix intersection, doctors have rebuilt Schechterle's ears. His nose is a work in progress. The skin of his face is a patchwork of scars. Contacts allow him to see through milky colored eyes.

Schechterle, 31,can drive now and is back to work at the Phoenix Police Department as a public information officer. He's also learning how to play golf again. But he can't put in his contactson his own, can't tie his shoes and can't button his shirt.

He takes his son Zane, 5, to soccer practice and his stepdaughter, Kiley, 9, to dance lessons. But he still dreads running into strangers in grocery stores or at the drive-through lane of a fast-food restaurant.

"It's a constant battle going out in public looking like this," he said in September. "You never, ever go unnoticed. The stares, the whispers, the nudges, the 'Hey, look at that.' I try not to let it bother me. But each new place I go, it happens."

'Fire was unbelievable'


Schechterle before the accident.


Schechterle was on patrol the night of March 26, 2001. He was stopped at an intersection when a taxi transporting a man just released from jail slammed into the back of his 1996 Crown Victoria. The taxi's speed is in dispute -- somewhere between 85 and 115 m.p.h. Everyone in the taxi survived; according to Schechterle, the taxi driver was having an epileptic seizure.

On the advice of his lawyer, Schechterle would not discuss whether he believes the police car would have caught fire if the gas tank were in another spot.Schechterle is suing Ford and the case is set for trial in Phoenix in May.But in testimony before a Texas legislative committee last April, he blamed the car's design for the fire that nearly killed him.

Ford officials say the location of the gas tank doesn't matter in such wrecks -- high-speed and high-impact.

The Crown Vic's gas tank was crushed and punctured at least twice, with one of the holes blamed on a mounting screw.

"The fire was unbelievable," said Officer Kevin Chadwick, who arrived at the scene after the crash, unaware of who had been injured. "The car was completely on fireand completely smashed. Black smoke and flames were swirling around the car, and I saw the silhouette of a body in there."

A fire truck just happened to be at the intersection when Schechterle's patrol car was hit. The firefighters on the scene put out the blaze, and Chadwick raced to the patrol car. He found the victim trappedin his seat belt. Chadwickcut the belt and freed him.

Chadwick's partner ripped the officer's metal name tab off his clothes and discovered it was Schechterle. Chadwick couldn't believe it.

By then, the burned officer was in the ambulance. Chadwick ran to the ambulance, pulled the man's wallet out of his pants pocket and saw that it really was Schechterle, the 28-year-old father and husband.

Eight minutes after the accident, Schechterle was at the hospital.

He spent the next 2 1/2 months in a coma.

Doctors warned the family that when he awoke, he wouldn't want to be alive and would hate them for making him live, his mother, Karen Schechterle, remembers.

When he awoke, he was blind. Thankfully, he said, he couldn't see himself in the mirror as his wife, Suzie, told him what had happened.

"There were plenty of tears, but every night I would crawl into his hospital bed and hold him" she recounted on his Web site, www.officerjason.com.


Returning to life


Schechterle came home in August 2001, and his sight returned that fall.

And as Suzie Schechterle put it, they made another baby.

Their son, Masen, was born 19 months after the accident on Oct. 29, 2002.

Schechterle said that before his accident, he knew there might be a problem with the Crown Victoria because two Arizona troopers had burned to death in 1998and2000when their cruisers were rear-ended.

But he didn't think about it much as he got behind the wheel of his patrol car at the start of his shift.

Now, he considers himself a voice for the 18 officers who havedied in rear-impact crashes in their Crown Vics, "who won't go home to their families every night like I do."

Schechterle's home is a stucco house in asubdivision west of Phoenix.

The words "hope," "happiness" and "love" are etched into tiles leading to the front door. Inside, it is a busy place, between his kids, visits from his parents, grandfather and his mother-in-law, Louise Knowles, and the overweight golden retriever, Tanner, born on the day of his accident. Suzie Schechterle bought Tanner, one of a litter of 13, to keep her husband company during his recovery.

She has devoted a wall in the living room to her husband's life-changing experience. There's his badge, soot still clinging to the metal. There's the knife used to free him from his seat belt. And there are pictures of him greeting President George W. Bush on the tarmac at the airport in Phoenix, throwing the first ball at an Arizona Diamondbacks game and carrying the Olympic torch.

Schechterle says he tries to be an inspiration to others.

He doesn't mind sharing his story, but he doesn't like it when someone tells him, "I thought I had problems until I saw you."

"Sometimes life is not what you expect," he said. "But it's still your life, and it's very short."

Contact JENNIFER DIXON at 313-223-4410 or dixon@freepress.com.