The Farm Hand

By R. Patrick Murtha

My partner and I were sent to the Imperial Valley to investigate a rash of accidents in the rich agricultural lands that make up the center of the "bread basket" that is the backbone of the California economy. State Insurance had been paying out large settlements this particular year and hired our company to investigate the causes of the increase in accidents concerning farming equipment and the largely Mexican workers manning that equipment. After taking a harrowing and bumpy ride in a small Cessna down the lush Valley, we finally reached our destination, rented a car and immediately set out for one of the largest farming co-ops in the Valley that stretched for miles and employed hundreds of workers at peak season.

This particular accident we were sent to investigate involved a mobile, high-speed threshing machine that carries a crew of 8 people down the rows of crop and separates the husk from the vegetable. Being used nearly 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, the platform where the workers stand became dirty and crowded with plant material. Over time, and without the proper maintenance, the normally intact barriers that were installed to keep the workers safe from the movement of the high speed threshing mechanism had been removed to speed up the operation. Tragically, and as we concluded unlawfully negligent, this resulted in one of the Mexican workers getting caught in the long prongs sticking out from the rotating drum, instantly being pulled into the hopper and his body shredded into multiple, ragged parts. His amigo, in reacting to seeing his friend ripped to pieces, tried bravely to save him by reaching down into the hopper and he also got caught up in the mechanism. Blood and body parts were sprayed and thrown for yards on either side and, as the junior investigator on this case, it was my task to take up close and personal photos of the machine just hours after the accident. Hundreds of them.

In order to do this kind of work one must detach oneself from the subject of the photos, from the human tragedy, from the grieving co-workers and family members as they stand silent around the accursed machine watching as you photograph everything on and around the machine from multiple angles. It is not an easy thing to do. One of the most horrifying of the sights as a result of the ripping, tearing and shredding that the machine had done, was to have to see the parts of what was a human being, or in this case two of them, mixed together in the most obscene combinations of parts; strewn here and there. As I set up my Nikon and video cameras I glanced to my right quickly and saw that a hand, ripped and torn from the wrist, the whiteness of the bone making a horrible contrast to the brown and red of the ripped flesh around it, had, in the insanity of the forces at work during the accident, been accelerated and wedged up into the neck of one of the beheaded workers there on the ground under the hopper. What a bizarre sight it was. I froze in mid-movement, telling myself not to look at it, yet compelled by the sight to do nothing BUT look. I can still see the look of horror and realization on the workers face, as ripped up as it was, but to have a three-fingered hand wedged up into the soft tissue of the neck was almost too much for me. I had to get a drink of water as I tried stoically to not throw up all over the accident scene, the wailing of the other workers very loud and near just 20 feet to the side. I finally composed myself and got about the task of taking photos but as I did so my eyes always came back to that weird scene; his dead eyes wide, his nose ripped nearly off to the side, the entire right side of the face nothing but pulp and cheekbone....and that hand. That hand that wanted to move when I looked at it…NO! It DID move damnit! I SAW it. Sure, it could have been reflex; sure it could have been my warped, sick mind making it move. But IT MOVED just as sure as I'm talking to you now. I KNOW it was impossible...there's no way to explain it…but that hand NEEDED to get out of that neck. It HAD to get back where it belonged! I KNOW it sounds insane, but I could not get that hand from my mind as I went about my gruesome task. That LOOK! That HAND! God it was horrible. And you know what? I STILL see that hand, all these years later, crawling in the periphery of my vision…especially like RIGHT NOW as I sit in a darkened room bringing back that HORROR of a memory. I CAN see that HAND just to the right of me in the corner! THERE! THERE it is! Oh god...I've got to stop now, I can't go on...I've GOT to find that hand and TAKE IT BACK WHERE IT BELONGS!