Payson High School students got a lesson in attitude. Not the kind they give their parents when asked to clean their room, but having the right one when faced with life’s greatest challenges.
Jason Schechterle has faced quite a few adversities since he was nearly killed in a fiery wreck in Phoenix 10 years ago. But he survived and has even thrived despite the odds.
Standing at a podium in the PHS auditorium, missing an ear, a few fingers and any resemblance of a “normal” face, Schechterle said it would be easy to say he is a victim, a guy with bad luck who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But instead, he says he is pretty lucky, with a few key things stacked in his favor that night a taxi, carrying a man just released from jail, crashed into him.
Schechterle tends to look at everything with this glass half-full attitude and encouraged students to do the same.
“I am a little over 10 years into this and I would absolutely not change places with anybody. I love my life, I love every day, I look forward to every day,” he said. “There are going to be some tough days ahead, but if you let the human sprit shine, it is amazing how bright it can shine.”
Schechterle delivers his message of recovery and hope to audiences around the country, raising money for his charity, Beyond the Flames, which helps others overcome life-changing challenges.
Schechterle said students could overcome any challenge with a positive attitude.
“Life is 10 percent what happens to us and 90 percent how we react to it,” he said. “We all are going through adversities in our lives, with family, friends, the future and finances. Think about where you are in life now and where you want to be.”
It was March 2001, when Schechterle, a Phoenix police officer, decided to take a call outside his patrol area.
On the way to the scene, a taxicab, speeding 115 mph, slammed into the back of Schechterle’s patrol car. The driver was having an epileptic seizure. A jury would later find the man guilty of aggravated assault after prosecutors showed he had not taken his prescribed medication.
Schechterle’s car burst into flames, encasing him in a fiery tomb.
Luckily, a fire engine was just feet away, on its way to the original call. Firefighters, and a few brave police officers, pulled Schechterle from his car and he was delivered to one of the country’s best burn units 2.5 miles away.
“There were so many miracles and twists of fate that went into putting that engine at that exact intersection at that exact time,” he said.
A rookie firefighter had slept through the initial alarm sound, setting the engine back 45 seconds. It was enough to put the crew at the intersection when Schechterle would need it. That same rookie broke Schechterle’s driver side window and reached in to pull him out. When Schechterle’s boots got stuck under the dash, one police officer crawled into the burning vehicle and released his feet.
A minute and a half after being hit, Schechterle was freed from the fireball that should have killed him. But being on fire 55 seconds had destroyed his face and badly damaged his hands. No one expected Schechterle would live, and a priest administered last rights at the hospital.
A bulletproof vest had saved his life.
For three months, Schechterle lay in a coma. When he awoke, he could not see and could barely move.
Through countless surgeries and years of rehabilitation, Schechterle learned how to do everything again and quicker than doctors thought possible.
However, he never quite recovered his eyesight to shoot well enough to carry a gun.
And a cop without a gun, is no real cop. Schechterle retired from his dream career several years ago and works full time to spread his message.
How it started
Born and raised in the Valley, Schechterle first gave thought of becoming an officer at age 16 when his brother became one.
Schechterle went to college on a golf scholarship and afterward, joined the Air Force. After serving four years, including at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, he was honorably discharged.
He came back to Arizona and got a job with APS, one he thought he would hold for many years.
“But life has a quick way of changing on you,” he said.
After returning home from work on March 26, 1999, Schechterle saw on the evening news that an officer had been killed in the line of duty.
“It truly was a moment of clarity for me. I thought, ‘You need to be wearing that uniform and doing that job,’” he said.
After gradating from the police academy, Schechterle was assigned to patrol the streets he had grown up on and he loved every minute of it.
“It was an amazing experience.”
Two years to the day he had watched the TV report on the officer’s death, his life would change again.
After a day of routine calls, he heard over the radio that there was a possible homicide, but it was out of his patrol area. When no one answered the call, Schechterle decided he could go.
When he slowed to go through an intersection, the cab struck him from behind.
“I never felt the impact, I don’t even remember the incident.”
While Schechterle was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery, the taxi driver had a broken leg and the cab’s passenger, who was thrown from the car, survived.
The irony that a man just released from jail would get in an accident with a cop is not lost on Schechterle.
“It’s pretty funny,” he said.
Schechterle makes light of a lot about his situation. Finding humor has helped him cope and survive.
He encouraged the audience to lighten up a little. A few students nervously chuckled, not sure what to make of Schechterle’s tale.
When he finally woke from a three-month coma and learned that he had been in an accident, Schechterle thought much of his old life was over.
He surely could not got back to work and he worried his own children would not recognize him.
Things started to get better when the skin graphs were taken off his eyes. The doctors had put them there to protect his sight.
He relearned how to walk and even got to throw out the opening pitch at a Diamondbacks game.
Many months later, he returned to work. This time as a public information officer with the Phoenix Police Department.
“Returning to work was one of the best days of my life,” he said.
After a few years of office work, Schechterle fulfilled his life’s dream and joined the homicide unit as a detective.
While the work was fulfilling, after a few years, it took its toll on Schechterle’s body and he officially retired in 2006.
Beyond his speaking and charity work, Schechterle says he enjoys his favorite pastime — golf.
And with the assistance of specially designed clubs, his game is better than before the accident with a zero handicap.
Schechterle doesn’t say he is glad he was in the accident, but he also wouldn’t change what happened.
“I just turned 39 and I still have my whole life in front of me,” he said. “You have to remember that the only thing, the only thing that you are in charge of, that you have control over, is your attitude and that is an amazing power to be able to choose what attitude you have in every day and in every situation.”
Schechterle closed with one of his favorite sentiments: “No matter what you believe in, life is short — and it is beautiful — so you might as well make the most of it.”