Transfiguration

By Khatchadourian, Raffi | The New Yorker, February 13, 2012 | Go to article overview

Transfiguration


Khatchadourian, Raffi, The New Yorker


God took Dallas Wiens's face from him on a clear November morning four years ago. If you ask Wiens, he will say that it was neither an accident nor a punishment; it was simply what had to happen. At the time, he was trying to paint the roof of the Ridglea Baptist Church, just off Route 30, in Fort Worth. He was twenty-three, and suffering from the complications of being young and living a life of trouble, heartache, and restlessness.

Wiens had been adrift since adolescence. At fourteen, a traumatic incident--something that he can't bear to talk about--had shaken him, cut into the core of who he was. He promised himself never to smile again, to detach himself from any emotion. Although he had grown up in a Christian home, he decided to turn his back on God. He fought often at school. By eighteen, he had left home, and was using drugs, dealing drugs, and carrying guns. He joined the Army, to clean himself up, but he had a bad knee and trouble with authority, and so he left. He tried to keep away from Texas, but poverty drew him back, and he got a local girl pregnant. While she was giving birth, the baby nearly died. In the hospital, Wiens asked someone if it was O.K. to cry, and then cried like never before. When the baby was born, a tiny girl at twenty-seven weeks, he filled up with emotion. He married the mother of his child, thinking that it was the right thing to do, but the marriage fell apart. He wanted change. He wanted to reenlist, to escape the mess of his story, to be a good father, a better man. Like all of us, he kept trying to find his way.

Wiens needed civilian medical and psychological evaluations before returning to the Army, and for that he needed money, which is how he ended up at the Ridglea Baptist Church on November 13th, the day his face was destroyed. He found the job through his oldest brother, Daniel; their uncle, Tony Peterson, was going to be working with them. They planned to do some touchup painting from a boom lift, which can hoist a man into the sky with a giant hydraulic arm. It was a small job. They debated where to position the machine, how far from the church, and decided that Wiens would go up. Daniel went around to the other side of the building. Wiens got into the lift and began operating the hydraulics. He seemed preoccupied, Peterson recalled; he was staring straight ahead, unaware of the danger, as he rose and rose, until his forehead hit a high-voltage electrical wire suspended above him. The electricity gripped his body, coursing through his head and the left side of his torso. For about fifteen seconds, ionized gas enveloped him in an azure nebula. The smell of an electrical burn hung in the air. "All around the kid was blue," Peterson said. "It lit him up, and it hung on to him. It seemed like forever. Shit, man, all I thought was 'I just killed my nephew.' "

Once the electricity let Wiens go, his body slumped like clay onto the suspended platform. Peterson lost his composure and fell into hysteria. Daniel called 911. The Fort Worth police department does not keep recordings of 911 calls for more than a year, but notes taken by an operator hint at the depth of urgency: "WAS FRIED FROM A POWER . . . IS HANGING . . . THE POWER SOURCE IS LIVE. . . . THINKS HE IS POSSIBLY DECEASED."

Within minutes, police and firefighters arrived. They lowered the lift and pulled Wiens's body out. When a paramedic got there, she was mesmerized by the damage. Just above Wiens's left ear, where he had hit the line, it seemed like hot candle wax had been poured over his skin. Daniel recalled, "He had like a little charred bald scar on the top of his head. When they stripped his shirt off, it was just a big gaping hole--and I know this sounds kind of nerdy, but I liken it to a lightsabre coming up and brushing him on the side." The paramedic placed an oxygen mask over Wiens's face, and his eyelids fluttered as he struggled to inhale. Daniel noticed that his eyes were red. "It was like someone had blown glue and sand into them," he said. …

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