Gill was our extricating specialist. Whenever somebody at the doll plant got a hand or an arm caught in a compression mold; or a piece of clothing wound around a spinning shaft; or a lock of hair pulled into a fan, Gill appeared ready for action. Last Thursday, little David Tuttle (we call him little because he’s short as hell, about five feet) got his uniform caught in a roller on a conveyor belt. It pulled him in and shot him out, sucked him in again and pinned him against the belt. He let out a scream and his shirt smoked, made the plant smell of burnt fabric. Mary Berry down on the line said it was strange that Tuttle started doing hip thrusts at the passing dolls before lunch but knew he was stuck when Gill arrived.
Last month, minutes before the Coponen girl had her arms crushed, Gill leaned against the cold steel of the second-floor railing, blowing on his coffee, black, surveying the plant. When the dolls head pressing machine, Big Bertha, ceased production, Gill perked up. Then a forklift driver left his vehicle, a solid no-no, and a woman down next to the dolls leg press jumped up and down, swinging her arms and putting one of her hands in her mouth. Gill hustled over.
He probably wasn’t sure what he’d see this time—a crushed hand maybe, a burnt palm, some severed fingers. A few people had pushed their red emergency stop buttons on their machines, gathered to watch. The girl was young, maybe twenty, with a skinny waist and a brunette pony tail and she was stuck underneath the press’s yellow security gate—how, we still don’t know.
Gill motioned for the people to move back. He leaned close to the girl’s ear. “Just relax, honey. Gill’s here now.”
She closed her eyes though appeared to remain semi-conscious; the grip from the upper and lower cavity plates of the mold held her upright. Gill stuck his head down next to the gate. Then she passed out. It had been two or three minutes since her arms got caught, and they were still caught. Gill slipped a small, steel block between the press and her arms. He popped the machine’s emergency stop, reversed it. Ms. Coponen’s left arm came out flat, the right was too except it hung, partially severed, from a thin layer of bone. Later we heard her arms were spared, but she never did show up again at the plant.
About two weeks after the Coponen mishap, Jerry Basil strode into the plant one morning with a hangover. As he changed a tire on a forklift at 6:25 a.m., using another forklift as a jack to save time, another damn no-no, it slipped off on him. We had no idea of the accident until Gill ran past with two men from the front office. When we got to the scene, Jerry squirmed, tried to jerk his legs free with his hips. The wheel drum on the front of the lift pinched both feet to the floor. Dale from maintenance got on his knees, wrapped Jerry in a bear hug to keep him from moving.
Gill remained calm. He found one of those high-pressured air mats and slid it under the frame, flipped a switch. After the mat inflated and Jerry was pulled free, the front halves of his feet were severed, the boots and all. One of the men from the office gagged, hurled scrambled eggs onto the concrete. But Gill didn’t. He dug fingers into each boot, plucked chunks of flesh with toes and dropped each into a plastic bag with ice, and handed the remains to paramedics from the air ambulance. Betty Monks said afterward that she’d heard Jerry was out until 2 a.m. that morning, drinking and dancing, at The Hole in the Wall.
On most days, though, we don’t see much action in the injury department. It’s only the steady slap of steel on steel, the lines of men and women moving their arms to keep up with an assembly line or press, as the tow motors rumble by. Once in a while somebody gets a forearm stuck to something hot and has to peel it off, cuts a hand with a utility knife, or crushes a finger, but other than that it’s usually quiet.
When Cole Hume asked Gill once how he always made it on the scene seconds after trouble struck, Gill said, “I’m always willing to help. It’s what God asked me to do.”
But this morning that changed because of Louise Hershka. She’s Gill’s cousin, a school teacher of eight years who recently got laid off, and had little choice but to join him at the plant. As she dressed the dolls—a cake job—and packed them into fancy boxes, Robbie Haskins stood sixty feet above her on a platform fixing a broken truss bolt. Apparently, he was having a fuck of a time getting the new bolt in the hole and dropped it. The twenty-pound bolt fell like an anchor, struck Louise in the head and knocked her silly. When Gill arrived, he moved his fingers through her hair and found a skull dent, began yelling. A few of the workers stood around joking.
We did our best to get help, though when we returned she was gone. Yet Gill continued to pinch the wound together until the paramedics showed. After Louise was covered and wheeled outside, Gill stripped to his skivvies and ambled to the grassy area in front of the plant, laid down. We pulled the main electrical switch to kill the machines, asked the men and women to file outdoors. The eighty-six workers formed a circle around Gill. Mary Berry kneeled, began singing Will the Circle Be Unbroken. The rest of us kneeled behind her; we all sang until our throats hurt; we sang until a bigwig from the front office came and took Gill away.