The accident no one would want to survive (part 1 of 3)

Posted: Monday, June 10, 2002

Editor's Note: The burns suffered by Jason Schechterle cost him his face, and more. They tested his doctors' skill and his family's love. This is the first part of a three-part serial.

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.

- - - - -

Suzie Schechterle never heard the doorbell. She only remembers being jostled awake and opening her eyes to the sight of her husband's partner, Bryan Chapman. He'd been let in by her mother, who was visiting.

Suzie knew the deal Jason and Bryan had made when they joined the force. If something happened to either of them, the other would notify his wife. And now here was Bryan, kneeling at her bedside.

Suzie sat up on her knees, cupped her hands to her mouth and let out a shriek.


''Jason's been in a very bad accident,'' Bryan was saying. ''Another car hit him. He's in bad shape.''

Suzie called her ex-husband to watch over their 7-year-old daughter, Kiley, and 2 1/2-year-old Zane, her son with Jason.

Arriving at Maricopa Medical Center, she had no idea what she was in for. As Bryan led her through the emergency room and into the bowels of the hospital, she didn't see the placard reading ''Arizona Burn Center.'' The waiting area was a sea of police uniforms, and it parted as Suzie passed through. She noticed the police chaplain. Was her husband dead?

Bryan led her through some double doors to a sink, where someone washed her hands. She wasn't sure why. She heard a mention of fire, and thought that perhaps Jason had been singed. The corridor smelled of rotten eggs.

Ushered into a conference room, she saw Jason's parents, brother and sister.

Then a burly man in aqua operating scrubs walked in, Dr. Daniel Caruso. The brusque, plainspoken chief of the Arizona Burn Center held nothing back.

''Your husband sustained third-degree, if not worse, burns to his head,'' he told Suzie, explaining that much of Jason's face had been lost to the fire. The ears. The nose. The hands were bad, too.

''We have to remove the burns,'' he finished, ''or he'll have no chance of survival.''

Caruso pushed some forms in front of Suzie and told her to sign. There was no time to waste.

He asked if she wanted to see her husband, but Suzie knew she could not. Not now, not like this. Just hours earlier, she had said it all. He knew how much she loved him.

''Please,'' she begged, grabbing Caruso before he left. ''Whatever you have to do, just save him.''

''I'll do my best,'' the doctor replied.

- - - - -

The team had assembled: Caruso and Dr. Kevin Foster, co-directors of the burn unit, and Dr. Clifford Smith, the chief resident.

Caruso and Smith had been at home, getting ready for bed, when their pagers went off. Once they got to the hospital, they called in Foster for another pair of hands. None of them had ever seen anything like this.

The burns had consumed the skin, tissue and fat in Jason's head, face and neck. His forehead was scorched right through to the skull. His hands were seared down to the tendons.

When Caruso first got to the hospital, he ran his gloved hands over Jason's head. It was hard as oak -- a sign of fourth-degree burns, as severe as they get. Third-degree burns sear through every skin layer; fourth-degree burns go further, eating through other tissue and fat.

Caruso was surprised this patient was alive. If a person's whole head is burned, the airway usually gets clogged with smoke. It swells shut, and he's gone.

But, at least in terms of timing, everything had worked in Jason's favor. Firefighters happened to be on the scene when the accident occurred. An ambulance arrived just as they cut him out, and an airway was quickly established. And he was young, only 28, and in good shape.

Caruso's mind raced. As serious as the injuries were, the treatment was the same as for any severe burn: Remove the dead skin and graft over it with new skin. Usually, he would wait a few days before beginning the excision to see how the burns progressed, but these were already too serious.

The doctor knew if he didn't operate immediately, infection would set in and Jason could die.

In a stark white chamber, a priest performed last rites as Jason lay on a table under a spotlight. A feeding tube snaked into his stomach, while a tracheotomy tube extended from his neck to help him breathe.

The room was stifling. Temperatures climbing above 90 degrees were necessary to compensate for any drop in Jason's body temperature due to the loss of skin.

Caruso took his place at the end of the table, ready to begin on the top of Jason's head. Foster and Smith lined up alongside the face. Using handheld knife blades akin to cheese graters, the doctors went to work, peeling back layer upon layer of scorched skin.

They were looking for any sign of life beneath the burns. Dead tissue resembles worn leather. Healthy tissue looks like medium-rare steak.

Healthy tissue bleeds.

With each swipe, the realization set in of just how badly this patient was injured. With each swipe, there was no blood.

Caruso traded the blade for an electronic, pen-sized instrument that cuts even deeper. He sliced through a swath of skin, and pulled it from Jason's head.

Still, no blood.

Slice, pull. No blood.

Caruso stopped.

''Just what the hell are we doing here?'' he demanded, unable to mask his own disgust. ''We're about to take off this guy's entire face.''

Still, the doctor knew if there was a way to save him, this was it. He worked on, though his misgivings would not go away.

''We're removing this guy's complete identity,'' he thought. ''We're going to subject him to surviving this.''

Each doctor was thinking the same thing: If it were himself on the table, he'd rather die.

None of them had ever excised burns this deep from a man's head and face. They had no idea what to expect. But they had no choice, either: A doctor's duty is to do everything possible ...

Slice, pull. No blood.

Like Caruso, Foster and Smith switched instruments and kept working.

In the hot operating room, hours passed as more skin came off, and the surgeons' few words grew more and more grim.

''It's not bleeding,'' one groaned.

''There's nothing,'' said another.

''Oh my God, I'm down to muscle.''

And then: ''I'm down to bone.''

To be continued Monday.

Pauline Arrillaga is the AP's Southwest regional writer, based in Phoenix.

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