About the Author
John S. Marr M.D., M.P.H., served as director and principal epidemiologist for the New York City Department of Health. The Eleventh Plague is his fifth book. He is the coauthor (with Gwyneth Cravens) of The Black Death and is the author of three books for children on public health concerns, drugs, smoking, and proper nutrition. The author of more than fifty medical journal articles on communicable diseases and emerging infections and a frequent op-ed contributor to the Medical Herald, Marr is cofounder of the internationally acclaimed Internet website. He lives in Connecticut with his wife, daughter, three Jack Russell terriers, and a mutt rescued from a pit bull encounter.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Sunday, April 20
In what will always be referred to as the Easter Swarming, a beautiful spring Sunday turned into a day of wrath as tens of thousands of bees swept into the parks and businesses that line San Antonio's River Walk.
March had been uncharacteristically chilly, and this warm, inviting April day was the perfect chance for folks to show off their Easter finery; the city's charming renovated downtown River Walk became a magnet for both visitors and locals. Tour barges, their decks lined with benches, afforded a relaxing way to see the many attractions of the Alamo City.
The narrow banks of the refurbished canals were lined with trendy shops and popular restaurants, all filled by midafternoon with people browsing, reading, or simply sunning themselves. Despite the growing threat of rain, there were long lines waiting to board the gaudy tourist boats.
Restaurants along the canals serve lunch and dinner outside, and the barges are usually full of folks who want to bask on deck and wave at the diners just a few feet away, but today the clouds were clearly gathering, and the wind was rising. One tourist had already picked up his laptop and asked to have his lunch served inside, behind the glass, where he could see the canal but be out of the wind and weather.
With napkins and menus were already being blown along the ground outside, only a few people even noticed the advent of the bees. At first they seemed to skim just above the water, but soon they were everywhere.
Most horrible, most indelible in the memories of those restaurant patrons was the set of adorable identical triplet girls sitting on the back of one of the barges--each carrying a white helium-filled balloon printed with a big yellow rose. The strings had been tied to each triplet's wrist, so the balloons would not be lost to the troposphere.
The triplets were six years old this very Easter day. Their mom always dressed them alike, bought them identical toys, and took them places to show them off. Her dream was for them to be child models, or at least cheerleaders. Seated near them, she encouraged the trio to wave at people on the shore. As the triplets waved, the balloons would float up and down, drawing all eyes toward the barge.
It seems possible that the first bee may actually have stung the mother; but there was general agreement that the triplets' waving their arms to ward off the bees caused the balloons to bounce and strike other bees, enraging them even more. The girls' mother swung at the bees with her purse again and again, screaming as they began to sting her through her thin spring dress.
Terror-struck, the triplets backed away in unison. When they reached out for a rail, another stream of bees seemed to skim in over the water, striking each of the six pink arms. In seconds, the insects had penetrated the girls' puff-sleeved outfits; their screams drew the attention of diners at the canalside restaurants. One woman on the barge rolled up a newspaper and, futilely trying to help the children, began to smack at the insects.
The mother grabbed one of her brood and began to look for a place to run to. The string attached to her daughter's wrist became tangled with the string tied to her sister, so as the mother ran, the second triplet, screaming even louder, was dragged down.
"Mommy . . . help me!" she cried. But it was her sister, back black with bees, who picked her up.
The mother was hysterical. The bees were winning, surrounding her children in a cloud of flying agony so dense it was difficult to see past it.
Just feet away on the shore, scores of people were also being stung. Even those who managed to smash a bee immediately found their hands covered with a dozen more. When they attempted to wipe the bees off by rubbing their hands against their arms and legs, those limbs were almost instantly covered.
The best refuge now seemed the water in the canal. So panicked that their common sense had left them, fully dressed people, forgetting they couldn't breathe underwater, began jumping in.
As they ran, other people yelled to the girls, "Jump . . . jump in the water!" but none of the triplets could hear them. By this point, they had been stung on the head so many times that their eyes were swollen shut. Two of them had dead bees jammed in their ears, forced in deep by the children's hysterical fingers trying to scrape the scourge from their faces. One of the triplets fell kicking to the deck, then another.
Suddenly one of the barge's passengers, a big Texan, came to the rescue. He waded into the cloud of bees as if they weren't there, snapped the twine on each girl's wrist, then pitched them neatly, one by one, over the railing into the canal. He hurled the mother in last, then made a shallow dive himself.
Two of the triplets had already begun to go into shock when the Texan picked them up. As their extremities began to swell, they started losing consciousness. When they hit the water, the cold revived them, but not enough to save them. They were underwater, and they had never learned to swim.
Their mother hit the canal at a steeper angle than the cowboy and stood up promptly in the chest-high water. The bees still massed in her hair, but she ignored them. Nothing mattered now that her children were drowning.
Frantic, she looked around, wading ineffectually toward one of the punctured balloons, but before she got to the spot, her face was covered with bees. Even though she submerged and tore them off with her hands, their tiny barbed stingers would remain buried in her flesh, sending dose after dose of lethal toxin into her system.
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