Alvin Cornelius says that almost getting squeezed to death Friday in the back of a big trash truck is easily the worst thing that has happened to him in all his 36 miserable, drifting, drinking, lonesome years.
"I thought I was gonna die, sure enough," he said outside the Parkland Memorial Hospital emergency room, where doctors had just put his broken left arm in a cast and X-rayed his scraped and bruised legs to make sure the bones were all right.
Cornelius went to sleep Thursday night in a big trash container outside City Hall. It was a cold night, he was drunk again and the metal trash bin was an inviting refuge of clean papers and cardboard and plastic bags.
"I covered up with them things and it was warm in there," Cornelius said.
He slept soundly. During the day he had put away three or four pint bottles of white port wine and eaten nothing. He went to the Union Gospel Mission at noon for some free lunch, but he was too drunk. They would not let him in.
He still had part of the $20 he had earned Wednesday when he worked a few hours loading trucks at a dairy, so he bought some more wine and drank away the afternoon. Sometime after dark he got sleepy so he went to the trash bin he had slept in the night before and crawled in.
"I've slept in them lots of times," Cornelius said, "But never again."
Sometime around 5 a.m. Friday, a trash truck nudged up against Corneluis' makeshift bedroom, hoisted it and dumped its contents -- man and all -- into the cylindrical refuse collector.
The compacting device hummed into motion and inside the back of the truck a wall began pushing Cornelius and papers against the end opposite the opening.
Ten or 11 times in the next hour or so, the truck stopped, picked up another container, dumped it on top of Cornelius, and that wall jammed it against him.
Cornelius screamed with pain and fear. It was the horror of the delirium tremens but it was real.
"The last time that steel wall came . . . Press. Push. Squeezing my breath out. I kept thinking what a horrible way to die. Crushed up like a pancake. Nobody would have found me. I said, 'oh my God, oh my God.'"
Then he passed out.
Meanwhile, about 6:30 a.m., Andy Mizner was operating a bulldozer at a landfill site near Hutchins. As each truck comes in an empties its load, Mizner knocks down the pile and drives over it.
When he knocked over one pile of trash and uncovered a man, Mizner thought the unconscious Cornelius was dead.
"God must have been looking out for me," Cornelius said a few hours later at the hospital. "I guess I'm lucky I'm alive."