The Scalping of Sylvia

A machinist gets maimed by a vintage lathe

When Sylvia Villarreal opens the door of her home in north Houston, she seems in the middle of preparing to leave for work. Her lips are painted, her hair is perfectly coiffed, and a few dark smudges on her forehead look like makeup in wait of a correction.

But Villarreal has nowhere to go on this particular Thursday. A 2 p.m. soap opera blares in her living room as she invites three visitors inside. One of them compliments her blond locks and she irritably rubs her brow. She reaches up, grabs the hair and pulls it off completely -- revealing a mutilated ear and a bare head mottled with scars.

The 26-year-old Villarreal was the victim last year of an industrial scalping. The accident at her manufacturing job at Triple H Plastics in Tomball left her hospitalized for two months. After 16 operations, she still can't grow hair or even work, and she may never receive future compensation for her injuries.

Garcia has made some gains after 16 operations.
Daniel Kramer
Garcia has made some gains after 16 operations.

"I itch so bad every day," she says, touching her still-sensitive scalp. "It just won't stop."

At the time of her accident, Villarreal was finally rebounding from a difficult beginning in life. She grew up near the Heights and, after the eighth grade, dropped out of Hogg Middle School to get married. A year later she gave birth to a baby girl. She was 16. Villarreal says her husband drank heavily and got fired from a string of jobs. He was locked away in 1996 for dealing drugs. Villarreal worked as a mail sorter, but had to rely on food stamps to survive.

"I was getting the minimum wage and I had to support my daughter, too," she says. "It wasn't enough. I would just cry all the time because I needed a better job and I couldn't get one."

Villarreal dreamed of working at a desk. After years of scraping by, she gambled and took a temp agency job answering phones. But the brief assignments left her unable to patch together enough money to help her second husband cover payments for their new house and car.

Her last agency job took her to the Triple H factory, where she filled in for a receptionist on sick leave. Near the end of her assignment, Triple H owner Scott Hiner asked her if she knew somebody who would want a permanent position as a machine worker. Villarreal volunteered, and a week later Hiner escorted her onto the loud factory floor. "It was kind of scary," she says. "But I just didn't care. I needed a job."

Hiner introduced Villarreal to a lathe about the size of a couch and showed her how to turn it on and off. She says her safety training stopped there. "He just put me at the machine and said, 'This is how you do it.' And that's it."

Every weekday for three years Villarreal followed the same mind-numbing ritual: She set small plastic plates on the lathe and pressed a button. A vacuum sucked them inside, where they were whittled down to a precise thickness. Her hourly pay rose steadily from $9 to $10.25. Hiner never explained what the parts were for, but she thought they went into air conditioners.

A year ago this month, one of the plastic plates slipped off her lathe and fell to the floor. When Villarreal reached down to pick it up, the machine's exposed drive shaft caught her ponytail. Spinning at 100 rpm, the shaft ripped off her scalp and part of her ear. Other workers barely heard her screams over the roar of the factory's machines.

Luisa Torres, who also ran a lathe, found her sitting on the floor, her hands clasped to her bare, bloody head. "Her head looked so small," Torres says. "It was something terrible." Another worker shut off the machine, on which Villarreal's scalp was spinning, and Torres draped her apron around Villarreal's blood-soaked shoulders. Many workers fled the building, but Torres stayed. Though Villarreal asked, Torres couldn't bring herself to tell her she had no hair.

Villarreal had been scalped so fast she barely felt it, but the pain soon arrived. "It was an ugly pain," she says. "It was the worst pain I ever felt." She awoke in the hospital after a week of morphine injections. Her eye sockets were swollen, her eardrum was ripped, and she could barely see or hear. It was two months before she made it home, where she looked at herself for the first time in the mirror. "I had figured my forehead was maybe the same," she says, "and then I just started crying."

The heads of some early scalping victims in the Texas Wild West were scraped with sharp knives; in one way Villarreal's accident was worse -- her scalp was ripped off by sheer force. It left her head completely devoid of skin, exposing the bone of her skull and a thin layer of bloody tissue.

Inspectors from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration arrived at Triple H Plastics the week of Villarreal's accident and slapped owner Hiner with a $4,500 fine for seven workplace safety violations. Hiner was cited for failing to cover the spinning parts on several machines, including Villarreal's lathe. And he had neglected to provide her and other workers with another required device: hairnets.

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