Copapayo, El Salvador
Elise Aguilar watched with somber eyes as the funeral procession marched through the dusty village square. The four male pallbearers strode with downcast faces as they balanced a child''s white casket on their shoulders. A small bouquet of yellow orchids had been slid across the lid, covering a hand-painted image of a soccer ball.
The dead child''s family followed, weeping openly despite words of comfort offered by the townspeople.
Elise tracked the entourage until they disappeared around a bend thick with foliage. The town''s tiny cemetery lay on a small hill just beyond.
She ignored a black Jeep that skirted the funeral procession as she turned and followed a worn footpath in the opposite direction. She walked past a handful of low-roofed, white stucco buildings that were home to the village''s thirty residents. The path ambled downhill and opened onto an expansive view of a shimmering blue lake.
Cerr—n Grande was a reservoir, the largest in El Salvador, built to supply hydroelectric power for the region. Hundreds of families had been resettled when the Lempa River was flooded in 1976, some to the hastily constructed village of Copapayo. Elise glanced at the lake. A fisherman in a canoe and a small workboat cruised across the waterway. To the right, a powder-gray concrete barrier marked the upper lip of the Cerr—n Grande Dam that had created the lake.
Elise descended the path nearly to the water''s edge. She stopped and wiped her brow in front of a large awning made from gnarled tree roots and covered with palm thatching. A half-dozen red tents were pitched in a semicircle around the awning''s opposite side, facing the shaded interior. To either side lay a large tract of farmland, bursting with rows of green cornstalks.
Under the awning, fellow scientists from the United States Agency for International Development sat around makeshift worktables, performing experiments or computer analysis. The group wore shorts and T-shirts in the steamy climate.
A lanky man with thick glasses and a straggly beard looked up from a microscope. "Why the long face?" he asked in a heavy Boston accent.
"There''s a funeral in the village today. The procession just passed."
"For the little boy?"
"Very sad. Rondi told me there was a sick boy from the village at the Suchitoto clinic. I didn''t realize it was serious."
He shouted to a local teenage boy sorting stalks of corn from a bin. "Rondi, what happened to the little boy?"
The teen hurried over to the scientists. "He was enfermo for a short time. A doctor came and took him to the hospital last week, but they could not help him."
"What was the diagnosis?" Elise asked.
Rondi shrugged. "Un misterio. The doctors, they don''t say. Just like the others."
"Three other children from the village have died in the past few months. Same thing. They get enfermo, and it is too late for the doctors to help them."
Elise looked at her colleague. "Phil, do you think it could be related to the food crops?" She pointed to the bin of corn Rondi had been sorting.
"Due to the genetically modified seeds we provided the farmers here last year?" He shook his head. "Not a chance. This variety is only engineered to withstand drought, and has been safely used all over the world."
She nodded. "It''s just heartbreaking to see children get sick."
He shrugged. "We''re agricultural scientists, Elise, not doctors." He glanced at the thriving cornfield. "And tomorrow, we need to pack up and move ten miles north."
He saw the disappointment in Elise''s eyes. "Okay, maybe we can do more. I''ll email our country manager and have her make a request to the World Health Organization. They have an established presence in El Salvador. I''m sure they can send someone to investigate."
"Thank you. The people here deserve to know what''s creating the illness."
He nodded. "In the meantime, I need you and Rondi to assess the yields in Plot 17." He pointed to a diagram of the fields around the village. Plot 17 was a narrow field close to the lake.
"S’, I know which one that is," Rondi said. He grabbed a canvas bag and looped it over his shoulder.
Elise followed him down a footpath through a neighboring cornfield. As they hiked, she kept thinking of the funeral procession and the small white coffin.
"Rondi, have there been sick children in the other villages, too?"
He nodded. "A cousin named Francisco. He died a short time ago. He lived in San Luis del Carmen, across the lake."
"How old was he?"
"Four, I think."
"I don''t recall that village. Did we provide seeds to the farmers there?"
"No, they always have strong crops. But I did see the cient’ficos there last week."
"What scientists?" Elise said. "Our team just arrived at Cerr—n Grande four days ago."
"I don''t think they were U.S. workers. Nobody seemed to know where they were from."
"What did they want?"
Another shrug. "They asked about the ni–os and took some food and water samples." He stopped at a plastic marker pinned to the ground with the number 17. "This is our plot."
Elise retrieved a yellow spool of string from Rondi''s bag and strode a few yards into the cornfield. She uncoiled the string onto the ground, forming a square around a patch of stalks. With Rondi''s assistance, she examined every stalk in the enclosure, recording the number of buds and ears forming on each. She jotted the figures on a clipboard, then moved the string to a patch several yards away and repeated the count. Back at the camp, she would calculate the predicted yield for the entire field.
"Let''s return to the camp by the lake," Rondi suggested, once they completed their measurements. He guided Elise through the cornfield.
They emerged on a low bluff overlooking the reservoir. Less than a mile to their right was the eight-hundred-meter-long concrete wall of the Cerr—n Grande Dam. They turned the opposite way and followed the shoreline toward camp.
Near the path to the village, Elise stopped to admire a small aluminum windmill on a concrete pad at the water''s edge. An eight-bladed fan spun in the light breeze, and water sloshed beneath the structure''s base. "I don''t remember this being here last year."
"The village well was running low, so the government provided it. Now we can get water from the lake. Mr. Phillip helped us install it last year, after you left."
"The water is used to irrigate the fields?"
"S’, and for the village. It draws water from a pipe that extends into the lake. We can direct it to the fields or to a filtered cistern that can be pumped into the village."
Elise gazed at the windmill, then turned to Rondi. "You have a boat, don''t you?"
"Tied up just around the bend."
"Can you take me out into the lake? I''d like to get some water samples near the inlet pipe."
"I''ll get the boat and be right back."
Elise jogged to the camp and dropped off the duffel bag and yield records. In its place, she grabbed a satchel with a half-dozen test tubes secured in Velcro pockets. She returned to the shore and waited until Rondi motored up in a small aluminum boat.
"Sorry." He gave a toothy grin. "The engine, it does not always like to start."
The dented, oxidized craft was powered by a little six-horsepower outboard that was older than Rondi and smoked as it idled. She tossed the satchel onto a bench, shoved the prow from shore, and hopped aboard. Rondi reversed into deeper water, then turned and motored offshore. They traveled just a short distance before he killed the engine and let the boat drift.
Rondi eyed their position relative to the windmill. "The pipe opening is about here."
Elise took two of the test tubes from the satchel, removed their stoppers, and dipped them into the cool, clear water. As she capped them, she noticed a dead fish floating nearby. "Do you see many dead fish in the lake?"
Rondi delivered another shrug. "I''ve seen some by the dam."
"Will you show me?"
Rondi tugged on the outboard''s pull starter a dozen times until it rasped to life. He aimed toward the dam, passing an old fisherman in a canoe who was pulling in a purse seine net. They approached the dam''s safety barrier, a simple steel cable stretched just above the water. Rondi cut the motor and allowed the boat to rub against the cable. Bobbing in the water were dozens of dead fish, their bloated white bellies turned skyward.
Elise snapped some pictures with her cell phone, feeling sick at the thought of the village people drinking untreated water from the lake. She collected two more samples, then looked across the reservoir.
"Let''s go north toward San Luis del Carmen. I''d like to collect one more sample near there."
As Rondi nodded, three sharp, deep rolls of thunder echoed from the opposite side of the dam. Elise and the teen looked at each other-and a deep rumble burbled up beneath them. In a slow cascade, the center face of the concrete dam in front of them crumbled away with a roar.
Elise screamed as Rondi tried to start the outboard. The motor coughed to life, and Rondi turned the throttle full over. The little boat surged away from the collapsing dam, gaining a dozen yards, before losing headway. The tiny motor wailed, but the boat went nowhere.
"What''s happening?" Elise cried.
"The current . . . it''s too strong." Rondi looked at her with large eyes, his hand on the tiller trembling.
Behind him, the dam was disintegrating into the ravine a hundred meters below as the flow of water accelerated.
Squeezing the throttle until his knuckles turned white, Rondi stared back at the watery edge and shook his head.
He and Elise could only watch as the boat was drawn backward to the widening gap in the dam and the deadly waterfall just beyond.
The rumble echoed across the reservoir.
"What was that?" Dirk Pitt raised his head from behind a pair of computer monitors where he''d been watching a sonar image of the lakebed. He peered across the cramped wheelhouse of the workboat at the short burly man piloting the vessel.
"It wasn''t thunder." Al Giordino glanced out the side window at blue skies. "Or my stomach, despite our meager excuse for lunch." He crumpled a potato chip bag and tossed it onto the dash, then shifted his gaze out the windscreen.
He suddenly sat upright. "Oh, brother, take a look at that. It''s the dam."
Pitt stood, stretching his six-foot three-inch frame, and looked off the bow. Less than a quarter mile ahead, the rim of the Cerr—n Grande Dam stretched across the reservoir. But now the structure had a huge gap at its center. Two small boats were just in front of the opening, being drawn into the void.
"The dam''s given way," he said, "and those boats are going with it."
Giordino jammed the throttle forward. The thirty-foot workboat surged ahead, driven by a twin set of 250-horsepower outboards. Rather than turn away from the danger, he aimed straight for the havoc.
He glanced over his shoulder across the open stern deck to a taut blue cable that trailed in the frothy wake behind them. A hundred meters back, a yellow sonar towfish broke the surface and bounded through the water.
"No time to reel it in," Pitt said, reading Giordino''s thoughts. He stepped to the rear cabin door. "Get as close as you can."
Pitt stepped onto the open deck, retrieved a life ring from the bulkhead, and tied it to a coil of line stored in a bucket. He moved to the transom and tied off the free end to a stern cleat. Looking over the side toward the dam, he wondered if they would get there too late.
Elise didnÕt notice the survey boat charging toward them. She focused on the old fisherman in the nearby canoe, fighting for his life. Despite his fierce attempt to paddle clear, the narrow wooden craft was quickly being drawn backward toward the cascading torrent. The old manÕs skinny arms flailed with hard, even strokes, but he was powerless against the gushing force.
"Rondi, can you help him?"
She had to yell over the roar of the falling water. The teen winced, then adjusted the tiller, angling the boat toward the fisherman''s path.
Elise slipped the satchel over her neck, then grabbed the side of the canoe and pulled the two boats together. The fisherman nodded thanks-and continued to slap the water on the opposite side with his paddle.
It was a losing battle. Both boats were sliding toward the abyss, now less than a hundred feet away.
Above the din of the waterfall, Elise noticed a new sound: the whine of large engines. The survey boat was charging toward the dam at top speed.
The boat curled around in a wide arc, trailing a blue cable, then slowed as it pulled just in front of them. A tall man with black hair standing at the stern tossed them a line.
"Tie off one of the boats," he yelled. "We''ll pull you clear."
The rope landed on the aluminum boat''s bow, and the fisherman grabbed it. Rather than tie it to one of the boats, he wrapped it around his waist and jumped into the water.
Elise couldn''t believe her eyes. She glanced back and saw the plunging water was less than fifty feet away. The draw of the falls was getting stronger, even as Elise let go of the canoe.
But the survey boat was following their position, its pilot feathering the twin outboards to stay near. On the stern, the tall man furiously pulled on the rope until the fisherman''s head bobbed alongside. He yanked the old man from the water and freed him from the line. Gathering the rope together, he again tossed the line toward the boat.
"Tie it off," he shouted.
As the line flew through the air, the aluminum boat pivoted in the accelerating current. The line went high and to the side, but Rondi grabbed for it anyway. "I''ve got it." He stood and stretched over the side.
A few feet ahead of him, Elise attempted a similar move. With both their weights shifted to the starboard rail, the boat dipped to the side, and the top of the gunnel kissed the water.
Elise tried to jump back. It was too late. The water poured in, flooding the interior, capsizing the boat.
Elise instinctively grabbed onto the boat, but it pulled her under as it sank. She let go and flailed to the surface. Gulping for air, she glimpsed Rondi rushing by, clinging to the line. With a flash of terror, she realized it was he who was stationary. She was the one speeding through the water.