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A Horrible Accident and Its Aftermath

Tragedy: One moment a young policeman was talking to his wife; the next, he was severely injured. Incident would test doctors, family.

June 09, 2002|PAULINE ARRILLAGA | ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

Phoenix — *

PHOENIX -- He had been a cop only a few months when he was called to his first major fire. An apartment was engulfed, and a bystander shouted that someone could be inside. Another officer ran to the back of the building while Jason Schechterle stood at the front alone, facing the flames, feeling the heat.

The fire devoured everything in its path. He couldn't see walls, couldn't see ceiling, couldn't see furniture--only the inferno.

Afterward, Jason peered through a window. Two bodies lay on a charred bed, skeletons without hair, skin, features. Nothing that resembled a human being.

"God," he thought, "what a way to die."

Fire had always been among his greatest fears.

*

Cruising the nighttime streets of Phoenix, the 28-year-old policeman punched the numbers into his cell phone, calling home.

"I haven't seen you in God only knows how long," Jason Schechterle cooed to his wife, Suzie.

"You have a lot of making up to do, buddy," she teased.

It was their nightly call, a ritual since Jason joined the Phoenix Police Department 14 months earlier. Suzie had opposed his idea to quit the power company and join the force; she was worried, naturally. But when Jason offered to give up his dream for her, she had to support him.

The phone calls helped calm her nerves, and on this night, March 26, 2001, they were even more flirtatious than usual. Jason had stayed over at his partner's house the day before to help install a sprinkler system. Now he had just two hours left on duty before heading home.

"I'm gonna get in bed and snuggle right up next to you," he said.

"I'll hold you to it," Suzie said, laughing, more like a schoolgirl than a 30-year-old mother of two.

Then the emergency tone sounded across Jason's patrol car radio, and a call came crackling in.

"Unknown trouble. 2735 East Thomas," the dispatcher intoned.

No response.

The dispatcher repeated the call and gave a rundown: Dried blood inside an apartment.

Again, no response.

It wasn't in his immediate area. It would surely mean working late. But it sounded like a possible dead body, and no one was responding.

Jason put Suzie on hold.

"513 Henry," he radioed. "I'll start up."

He went back to his wife.

"Baby, I need to go. I'm en route."

Jason flipped on his lights.

It was 11:17 p.m.

*

Moments earlier, groceries in hand, Lawrence Tracy hailed a cab to head home from the market.

"24th Street and Thomas," he said, climbing in.

The cab turned onto Thomas Road, but suddenly jerked and ran up on a curb.

"Are you OK?" Tracy asked, but the driver said nothing. Instead, the cab picked up speed, lurching down the street as light poles and signs whizzed by.

"Slow down!" Tracy pleaded. The driver didn't respond.

The cab flew through several green lights. Then Tracy saw the next light, at 20th Street and Thomas, change.

Yellow ...

The car in front slowed to a stop.

Red ...

The cab swerved to avoid the vehicle. To its left, a police car was stopped with its lights on.

Tracy grabbed the seat and braced for impact.

*

Phoenix Fire Engine No. 5 also had just been dispatched. It wasn't an emergency, so when a light at a highway exit ramp near 20th and Thomas turned red, the truck rolled to a stop.

It was 11:21 p.m.

Suddenly, there was a fireball.

Capt. Michael Ore's crew jumped out of the engine and began unraveling the hose. Then Ore saw the flashing lights.

"We're on the scene of a 962 ... !" he shouted into the radio, giving the code for an accident with injuries. "Give me a first-alarm medical. Police car involved."

And then: "Trapped victim!"

Flames licked at the broken frame of the patrol car, its back seat crushed by the impact. Inside, thick black smoke formed like a storm cloud in the front seat. Ore couldn't see through it, but he knew someone was inside.

"Hurry up!" he yelled to his crew. "There's a man burning to death in there!"

Darren Boyce aimed the hose inside the car, while rookie Henry Narvaez fought to open the driver's door. "I can't get it open!" Narvaez shouted as a small explosion ripped through the right side of the car, sending flames shooting in all directions.

Ore tossed an ax to Narvaez, who broke through the window. Boyce kept the flames at bay, but the front seat was smoldering beneath the smoke and steam. The stench of melted plastic filled Ore's nostrils as he and Narvaez tugged at the officer, fighting to free him.

But he was still strapped into his seat belt, and they couldn't get to the latch.

"Get a knife!" Ore screamed.

A policeman who'd just arrived sliced through the seat belt, while a second officer loosened the legs. Together the men pulled the officer through the window just as an ambulance drove up.

As they shoved him onto the gurney, a piece of skin peeled off the officer's arm -- revealing a small patch of white on an otherwise blackened man. Ore, a 26-year veteran, was stricken.

"I'm not sure we did this guy a favor," he thought as the ambulance pulled away.

*

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