The Scalping of Sylvia

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.

"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.

"It's hard to keep up with what they do now, versus what you might have done ten, 20, 30 years ago," Hiner says, speaking of the safety requirements. "You don't know that you gotta modify this stuff. But once they came and cited me, I complied with everything that they asked. I have no problem with that."

Villarreal connected with personal injury attorney Wade Moriarty and quickly learned that under Texas law, she had waived her ability to sue the factory when she signed up for workers' compensation insurance. Moriarty filed suit instead against Jones & Lamson, the company that made the lathe, but discovered it had closed its doors and declared bankruptcy last year. He's now trying to find the company that sold the equipment, but he's not optimistic. "As much as I think I can do good," he says, "this is maybe an example of where I can't do anything. It's frustrating from my perspective, but it's horrible for Sylvia."

Modern medical techniques have helped Villarreal grow some new skin on her head, yet not without costs. Surgeons removed a vein from her ankle and implanted it on her head. To reconstruct her ear, they took cartilage from her rib and a vein and skin from her arm. The most painful procedure came when they peeled a foot-long rectangle of skin from her thigh for a transplant. "It was like if you burned yourself," she says. Villarreal will never grow hair. While the operations on her head continue, workers' compensation pays her $273 per week in living expenses, plus medical bills. Those have topped $250,000.

Nothing beyond the rare OSHA inspection ensures that lathes like the one that scalped Villarreal will be retrofitted to keep them from injuring others. The Vermont company that supplies spare parts for the lathe -- the BK Fellows Services Group -- couldn't say how many of the machines Jones & Lamson produced, but estimated their numbers to be in the "tens of thousands." Some of those may already be consigned to the scrap heap because the lathes were manufactured in 1939. Yet many more may still be in use. "We find a lot of WWII surplus stuff in smaller manufacturing facilities," says north Houston OSHA director John Lawson. "It was well built, but they didn't do a lot of safety things back in the '30s."

Both of the lathes in Hiner's shop were outfitted a week after the accident with shaft covers, but Torres couldn't deal with the memories of Villarreal's scalping and quit three months ago. She plans to attend cosmetology school. "Sylvia's hair was very pretty," she says. "She had beautiful highlights."

Villarreal doesn't know what she will do once her doctors declare her fit to work. She may never be able to log long shifts standing up like she did at Triple H. (Incidentally, the parts the company makes are for natural gas compressors). Not that that information will do her any good. Once her workers' compensation payments end, she'll be left with nothing but scars and bad memories.

Villarreal still shivers when she recalls the accident. She sits on her couch, surrounded by wet tissues and photos of herself with her long, curly red hair. "It just hurt so much and I don't wish it for nobody," she says, "because this is bad."

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Josh Harkinson