By JEFF COLLINS The Orange County Register
July 10, 2000
The memory still haunts the south- county pharmacist.
Bees in his mouth. Bees in his ears. The loud drone of bees swarming his head as he ran, tumbled and fell down a mountainside in a frantic, 20-minute escape. Bee suits protect against bee stings.
Two weeks after Joe Thitathan and three friends survived an attack by "killer bees" at Joshua Tree National Park, the stings and the cuts are beginning to heal.
Thitathan said Sunday that he was relieved that DNA tests confirmed that he and his friends were indeed attacked by Africanized honeybees.
The attack left one Orange County companion with a broken leg from a fall and everyone covered with dozens of stings.
"It was really scary. There's no way to describe it," said Thitathan, 27, of Las Flores, just east of Mission Viejo. "In 20 seconds, the bee concentration went from nothing to very intense."
The June 25 incident prompted park rangers to close a 4-square-mile area for five days.
Park officials said the attack was the first at Joshua Tree since Africanized honeybees reached California on Oct. 24, 1994, after decades of migration from South America. The wild bees, known for their tendency to attack en masse, were detected in Orange County in March 1999.
Thitathan was with three friends when the attack occurred: his neighbor, Jason Hayes, 28, of Las Flores; Cliff Cox, 34, of Cerritos; and Narciso Polanco, 28, of Long Beach.
The group had been to Joshua Tree many times. This day, they planned to climb rock piles that adorn the arid 794,000-acre national park.
They arrived from Orange County at 9:30 a.m. and had scaled their second rock formation, climbing about 100 feet above the road, when the attack occurred.
Hayes swatted at an insect and asked, "What are all these flies doing here?" They weren't flies.
An instant later, bees attacked all four at once and began stinging them on their necks, ears and faces.
Thitathan heard his companions screaming in terror and pain as they ran madly in four directions, arms flailing.
"Each of us was just going through a nightmare," Thitathan said. "My life flashed before my eyes."
Pumped up on adrenaline, the four found themselves hopping down 10- to 15-foot boulders. They were cut and scraped as they fell numerous times, all the while pursued by the angry bugs. Thitathan looked at his hands. They were soaked with squished bees.
"Please don't let me die - from bee stings of all things," Cox found himself praying.
Thitathan suddenly heard Hayes crying for help, shouting that he'd broken his leg. Polanco went back.
The bees seemed to subside when Thitathan reached the bottom of the hill. But as he slowed to a walk, they attacked again - and again.
Cox reached the car first.
Thitathan and the others finally hobbled up to the car. Thitathan looked back at Polanco and Hayes, who'd been stung about 150 times apiece.
"They looked horrible. The stingers were all over their faces (and) their earlobes," he said. Fearing someone might go into anaphylactic shock, Thitathan raced to the nearest hospital, not waiting for an ambulance.
Polanco and Hayes were nauseated from the bee venom. Four dead bees were collected from their clothing at the emergency room.
On Friday, a San Bernardino County vector ecologist said tests confirmed they were Africanized honeybees.
Cox returned on July 3 to guide county vector-control officials to the site. He wanted to make sure the bees didn't attack anyone else. Men in bee suits went up first. No sign of bees. Cox summoned his courage and went up after them.
The bees were lying low, possibly due to high winds that day. Officials said the nest must be deep in a crevice. Perhaps high humidity on June 25 had provoked them, they said.
Looking back, Thitathan and Cox said they felt lucky to be alive.
"You're just having fun and enjoying the environment, and (suddenly), this just happened," Cox said. "It was horrible. ... Definitely like a horror movie."