I ran across an article on-line yesterday about a man in Davie, Florida, near Miami, who was pulled through a wood chipper. Not one of the small ones, mind you, but the big industrial kind the professional tree trimmers use. Although it was just one man and local incident, the story was gruesome enough to be picked up by the national news services. Personally, while horribly tragic, I found it inspiring in a fiction writing kind of way. After all, the witnesses to the tragedy couldn’t explain how the man wound up ground up. But maybe there is an answer.
The morning was clear and dry, but the heat of the day—and with it the Florida humidity—enveloped Duke Henley like grease from a hot skillet. All in all though, the day held the promise. Henley, the crew foreman, was in fine spirits. Using his limited Spanish, he even joked with the crew. They were just day laborers, but they were damn good workers. Henley had used them before. He had even recommended to the boss that they be brought on full-time. He thought that if they did well on this job, he would try again to get them hired.
This job—the “big trim” as the town council called it—was in preparation for the annual Cartersville Hurricane Festival. The festival commemorated the devastating 1926 hurricane that all but leveled Cartersville and celebrated those who lived to rebuild it. And rebuild it again in 1947 and 1960 and 1992. The citizens of Cartersville were nothing if not resilient. But some wondered if there wasn’t something more to it, something that had to do with that terrible Clairmont Hotel that burned during the storm of ’26. It had been twenty two years since Hurricane Andrew, and many thought their time was about to run out.
For the sixth year in a row, the town had awarded the tree trimming contract to the TreeShred Company. It was their job to ensure all the trees lining the streets of Cartersville were picture perfect. TreeShred ran a well organized and efficient operation. The company used experienced teams for each stage of the job. First came the survey team to decide what had to go and what stayed. Then came the trimmers who actually cut the limbs and left them by the curbside. The trimmers were closely followed by the chippers. Duke Henley’s crew was one of five working in various parts of the town. His chippers fed the limbs into a chipping machine that would reduce a limb twenty-inches thick into dust in a matter of minutes. The dust poured into the back of a dump truck which took it away to the town landfill. Following the chippers was a clean-up crew that made sure the streets looked better than when the first crew arrived.
Jose Martín, Javier Guzman, and Tito Franks worked well together. They had worked many odd jobs, just whatever was available, before getting hired by TreeShred. It was physically demanding work, but it was honest labor and that was important to them. They wanted to be known as exemplary citizens. More than that they wanted to actually be citizens, something they couldn’t be now. But that was okay, they had faith that better times were coming, for them and for their families. And they liked working for Señor Henley, he was a good man. Even though his Spanish was poor, they laughed at his attempts at humor anyway.
It was because of this—the feeling that everything was going so well—that the true horror of what happened next never really translated. It all happened so quickly, no one actually saw it—or no one remembered actually seeing it. The chipper was running. Tito was operating the controls—his hand inches from the kill switch. The kill switch would automatically shut down the chipper if there was an accident. TreeShred was keen on safety. Jose and Javier were feeding in a large branch, nothing unusual though. They weren’t even using the winch.
Then suddenly Javier was gone. It was like a belt had been wrapped around his waist and jerked him off his feet onto the feed table. He was able to utter a single cry of astonished horror before the razor sharp blades tore into him, digesting him, mixing him with shredded wood, and discharging him as a wet, crimson dust.
The Cartersville Times headline read “Man Killed In Chipper Accident”. After describing the circumstances, including the fact that Javier was fed through the chipper, the writer included the statement that the victim was deceased before the police arrived. The Times has always had a penchant for reporting the obvious. But while reporting the obvious, the reporter missed the one thing that could have saved them all.