An Ostrich-Plumed Hat: Chapter Sixty-Six

an ostrich-plumed hat

Begin with Chapter One ~ Return to Chapter Sixty-Five

Dr. Ferdinand Peter Herff, August 1914

A healthy boy finally emerged at eight o’clock this morning. Peter finds himself exhausted after the long, sleepless night.

He slumps a little on the carriage seat, loosening his grip on the reins. This allows his horse Hippocrates the freedom to plod along at his own pace and pick his own route, not necessarily the most direct one, back to his office.

Boom! The earth quakes. Hippocrates rears up. Nostrils flaring, he bolts. Peter manages to rein him in, trying to make sense of the enormous explosion. Debris and ash rain down around them. A huge black cloud of smoke mushrooms upward and outward in the sky.

The roundhouse. It can only be the Southern Pacific Roundhouse.

As he forces Hippocrates toward the disaster, hysterical screams arise from a yard up ahead. Peter secures the carriage, grabs his bag and runs toward the house.

Mrs. McGill holds an ash-covered sheet with only one corner pinned to the clothesline. She continues to shriek. No words emerge from her mouth to offer clues as to what is wrong, but she appears to have no bleeding parts. Assuming there are bound to be severely injured people ahead, Peter turns to leave.

The source of her horror. Not six feet from where Mrs. McGill is standing. A head. No body. Only a severed head. Thinking it belongs to her husband Aloysius, Peter gently turns it over.

No. It is the blackened face of a young lad. Eighteen years at most. He takes the sheet from her hands and covers the head.

The act quiets Mrs. McGill’s screams. She resumes her task. Irrationally, she pulls another ash-covered sheet out of her basket and begins pinning it to the line.

On foot, Peter again heads toward the roundhouse. In the middle of a roof across the street, an arm reaches out for help. No. It is not an arm reaching outward, but a severed arm pierced into the roof as though shot from a cannon.

By the gate of the roundhouse, a woman lies in a heap on the ground. He stoops to check her pulse.

“That’s August Peters’ wife,” says a deep voice behind him.

Peter is surprised to find Mr. Koehler at his side, although by now ambulances, fire engines, police, seemingly the whole city streams toward the spot where the roundhouse once stood.

“He is, or was, a boilermaker here,” continues Mr. Koehler. “Used to work for us, but we never knew when he was going to show up. There was always someone sick in his household–his mother, his wife, a child. He’d stay home to tend to them. And he had a passel of children. He was a good family man, but we had to let him go.”

“She’s breathing, but unconscious. A bolt or something is embedded here, in the side of her forehead.” Peter signals for one of the arriving ambulances to collect her.

Peter heads toward a body just ahead, and turns the man over on his back. Intestines spill out, and the man is bleeding profusely. He gets to work, desperately trying to stop the hemorrhaging.

“I’m not sure you have all the parts,” murmurs Mr. Koehler, directing the doctor’s attention to a telephone wire overhead festooned with a gruesome garland of intestines.

“No. Everything’s here. Those must belong to someone else.”

“The ambulances won’t be able to handle all of this,” says Mr. Koehler. “I have my men hitching up the beer wagons to transport the injured to the hospitals. They’ll be here shortly.”

“Surely no war could be worse than this.”

“I fear in war, scenes such as this occur every single day,” says Mr. Koehler, turning to direct his arriving drivers.

Boiler tubing from the exploded locomotive splayed out in front of its drive wheels and lower part of the engine, courtesy of Farrell Tucker’s San Antonio Police History Archive

Footnotes

A horse named Hippocrates. How perfect of Dr. Herff. But the Author does not know their exact whereabouts on the morning of the explosion. Nor of Otto Koehler, Hedda Burgemeister or Emma Koehler.

Many of the names of victims in this and the next two chapters are invented, but the types of horrible injuries come straight from the descriptions in the newspapers. At least twenty-six people are known to have died and close to fifty injured by the explosion that took place on March 18, 1912. Yes, the Author is tinkering a bit with time here.

Continue to Chapter Sixty-Seven

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