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World Cup Fever
Rio de Janeiro
Saturday, July 12, 2014
CHRIST THE REDEEMER appeared and vanished in the last clouds clinging to jungle mountains that rose right up out of the city and the sea. Then the sun broke through for good and shone down on the giant white statue of Jesus that looked over virtually all of Rio from the summit of Corcovado Mountain.
In the prior two months, I’d seen the statue from dozens of vantage points, but never like this, from a police helicopter hovering at the figure’s eye level two hundred and fifty feet away, close enough for me to understand the immensity of the statue and its simple, graceful lines.
I am a lapsed Catholic, but I tell you, I got chills up and down my spine.
“That’s incredible,” I said as the helicopter arced away, flying over the steep, jungle-choked mountainside.
“One of the seven modern wonders of the world, Jack,” Tavia said.
“You know the other six offhand, Tavia?” I asked her.
Tavia smiled, shook her head, said, “You?”
“Not a clue.”
“You without a clue? I don’t believe it.”
“That’s because I’m unparalleled in the art of faking it.”
My name is Jack Morgan. I own Private, an international security and consulting firm with bureaus in major cities all over the world. Octavia “Tavia” Reynaldo, a tall, sturdy woman with jet-black hair, a lovely face, and beguiling eyes, ran Private Rio. And we’d always had this teasing chemistry between us.
The two of us stood in the open side door of the helicopter, harnessed and tethered to the ceiling of the hold. I hung on tight to a steel handle anyway. The pilot struck me as more than competent, but I couldn’t help feeling a little anxious as we picked up speed and headed southeast.
I used to be a helicopter pilot in the U.S. Marine Corps; I got shot down in Afghanistan and barely survived. A lot of good men died in that crash, and because of their deaths, I’m not a fan of helicopters despite the fact that they can do all sorts of things that a plane, a car, or a man on foot can’t. Let’s just say I tolerate them when the need arises, which it had that day.
Tavia and I were aboard the helicopter courtesy of Mateus da Silva, the only other person in the hold. A colonel with the Brazilian military police, da Silva was also head of all security for the FIFA World Cup and the man responsible for bringing Private in as a consultant.
The final game of the tournament—Germany versus Argentina for the soccer championship of the world—was less than a day away. So far there’d been little or no trouble at the World Cup, and we wanted to keep it that way. Which was why da Silva had asked for an aerial tour of the Marvelous City.
After two months in Rio, I agreed with the nickname. I’ve been lucky enough to travel all over the world, but there’s no place like Rio de Janeiro, and certainly no more dramatic an urban setting anywhere. The ocean, the beaches, the jungle, and the peaks appear new at every turn. That day a million hard-partying Argentine fans were said to be pouring over Brazil’s southern border, heading north to Rio.
“This will give us a sense of what Rio might look like during the Olympic Games,” da Silva said as we peered down at dozens of favelas, shantytown slums that spilled down the steep sides of almost every mountain in sight.
Below the favelas, on the flats, the buildings changed. Here, on the city’s south side where the wealthy and superrich of Rio lived, modern high-rise apartment complexes lined the sprawling lagoon and the miles and miles of gorgeous white-sand beaches along the coast.
We flew over the tenuous seam where slums met some of the world’s most expensive real estate toward two arch-shaped mountains side by side. The Dois Irmãos—the Two Brothers—are flanked by the Atlantic Ocean to the east, the ultrachic district of Leblon to the north, and a sprawling favela known as Rocinha to the west.
Once one of the most violent places in any city on earth, Rocinha was among the slums Brazilian military police tried to “pacify” in the years leading up to the World Cup. The government trained a hard-core group of elite fighters known as BOPE (from the Portuguese words for “Special Police Operations Battalion”) and declared war on the drug lords who had de facto control over the favelas. Da Silva was a commander in BOPE.
The special unit killed or drove out the narco-traffickers in dozens of slums across the city. But they’d succeeded only partially in Rocinha.
The favela’s location—spilling down both flanks of a mountain saddle—made access difficult, and the police had never gained full control. Da Silva remained nervous enough about that particular slum to demand a flyover.
We went right over David Beckham’s new place in a canyon above Leblon. The British soccer star had caused a stir when he’d bought land in a favela; some of Rio’s wealthy were indignant that he would stoop to living in a slum, and advocates for the poor worried it would start a trend and displace people who desperately needed shelter.
The helicopter climbed the north flank of the mountain, allowing us to peer into the warren of pastel shacks built right on top of each other like some bizarre Lego structure.
“You might want to stand back from the door, Jack,” Tavia said. “They’ve been known to shoot at police helicopters like this.”
Tavia was very smart, a former Rio homicide detective, and she was usually right about things that happened in her city. But da Silva didn’t move from the open doorway, so I stayed right where I was too as we flew over the top of the slum, dropped off the other side, and curved around the south end of the Two Brothers.
We stayed low to avoid the ten or fifteen hang gliders soaring on updrafts near the two mountains. To the east, the coastal highway was clogged with traffic as far as we could see. The Argentines had come in cars and buses. They hung out the windows waving blue and white flags and bottles of liquor. Bikini-clad girls danced on the hoods and roofs of the vehicles and crowded the beach on the other side of the highway.
“They’ll be coming all night,” Colonel da Silva said.
“Can the city handle it?”
“Rio gets two million visitors on New Year’s Eve,” Tavia said. “And five million during Carnival. It might not be managed flawlessly, but Rio can handle any crowd.”
Da Silva allowed himself a moment of uncertainty, then said, “I suppose, besides traffic jams, as long as the final goes off tomorrow without incident, we’re good to—”
“Colonel,” the pilot called back. “We’ve got an emergency on Pão de Açúcar. We’ve been ordered to get a visual and report.”
“What kind of emergency?” the colonel demanded.
As we picked up speed, the pilot told us, and we cringed.
I hung out the door, looking north toward Pão de Açúcar, Sugarloaf Mountain, a thirteen-hundred-foot monolith of dark granite that erupts out of the ocean beyond the north end of Copacabana Beach.
“Can people survive something like that?” Tavia shouted at me.
Even from eight miles away, I could clearly make out the sheer, unforgiving cliffs where they fell away from the peak. I thought about what we’d been told and how bad the injuries might be.
“Miracles happen every day,” I said.
IN A LAB at the Oswaldo Cruz Institute in Rio’s Centro District, Dr. Lucas Castro tried to steady his trembling hands as he waited impatiently for a machine to finish preparing a tissue sample for examination.
Please let me be wrong, Dr. Castro thought. Please.
There were two others in the lab, young technicians who were paying more attention to the television screen on the wall than to their work. Soccer analysts were discussing the next day’s game and still shaking their heads over the thrashing Brazil had taken in the semifinal against Germany.
Seven to one? Castro thought. After everything done to bring the World Cup to Brazil, after everything done to me, we go down by six goals?
The doctor forgot about the tissue sample for a moment, felt himself seized by growing anger yet again.
It’s a national embarrassment, he thought. The World Cup never should have happened. But, no, FIFA, those corrupt sons of—
The timer beeped. Castro pulled himself out of the thoughts that had circled in his brain ever since the crushing loss four days before.
The doctor opened the machine. He scratched his beard, a habit when he was anxious. He retrieved and cooled a small block of sterile medium that now encased a sample of liver tissue he’d helped extract from a very sick eight-year-old girl named Maria. She and her six-year-old brother had been brought to the institute’s clinic violently ill in a way Castro had rarely seen before: sweating, shaking, decreased function in almost every major organ.
The doctor took the block to another machine that shaved razor-thin slices off it. He stained these, mounted them on slides, and took them to a microscope. Castro was a virologist as well as an MD. In any other situation, he would have run a time-consuming test to determine whether a virus was involved, but if his suspicions were right, looking at the cells themselves would be a much quicker indicator.
He put the first slide under the lens.
Please let me be wrong about this.
Castro peered into the microscope, adjusted it, and saw his fears confirmed in several devastating seconds. Many of the cells had been attacked, invaded, and hideously transformed.
They looked like bizarre, alien reptiles with translucent coiled-snake bodies and multiple heads. Seeing them, Dr. Castro flashed on a primitive jungle village exploding in flames and felt rattled to his core.
How many heads? he thought in a panic. How many?
Castro zoomed in on one of the infected cells and counted five. Then he looked at another and found six.
Not five? Not four?
He looked and quickly found another six-headed cell, and another.
Oh dear God, this can’t be—
A nurse burst into the lab, cried, “The girl’s crashing, Doctor!”
Castro spun away from the microscope and bolted after her.
“Who’s with her?” he demanded as they raced down a hallway and through a door that led them outside onto a medical campus.
“Dr. Desales,” she said, gasping.
Castro blew by her and sprinted down the street to the institute’s hospital.
He reached the door of the ICU two minutes later. A man and a woman in their thirties stopped him before he could go in.
“No one will tell us anything, Doctor!” the woman sobbed.
“We’re doing our best,” Castro told the girl’s parents, and he dodged into the ICU, where he yelled at the nurses, “Get us hazmat suits. Quarantine the room. Then quarantine the entire unit!”
Castro grabbed a surgical mask, went to the doorway, saw Dr. Desales working furiously on a comatose eight-year-old girl. “John, get out of there.”
“If I do, she dies,” Dr. Desales said.
“You don’t, you could die.”
Various alarms started sounding from the monitors and machines attached to a six-year-old boy in the bed next to the girl. Dr. Castro scanned the numbers, saw the boy was crashing too.
Throwing aside all caution, Castro yanked on sterile gloves and went to work, frantically adding a series of medicines to the IV.
“What the hell is it?” Desales demanded.
“A virus I’ve seen only once before,” Castro said. “We called it Hydra. Goes after the major organs.”
“Not certain, but we think body fluids.”
“Roughly sixteen percent the last time it appeared,” Castro said. “But I think there have been mutations that made it deadlier. C’mon, Jorge, fight.”
But the boy continued to fail. The doctors tried everything that had helped in these cases before, but no matter what they did, Jorge and his sister kept slipping further from their control. Their kidneys shut down. Then their livers.
Eleven minutes after Castro entered the ICU, blood began to seep from the little girl’s eyes. Then Maria was racked by a series of violent convulsions that culminated in a massive heart attack.
Fourteen minutes later, in the same terrible way, little Jorge did too.
FOUR HUNDRED YARDS off the shore of Copacabana, Colonel da Silva and I, harnessed and tethered, hung out the side of the helicopter and peered through binoculars.
Tens of thousands of crazed Argentine fans were partying on the famous beach. But my attention was totally focused on Sugarloaf.
“Do you see them, Jack?” Tavia shouted.
Through the shaky binoculars, I kept getting various glimpses of a thousand feet of black rock, but nothing—
“There,” I said, spotting something bright yellow against the cliff several hundred feet below the summit and something red and white below that.
“Jesus,” I said. “That’s bad.”
The pilot flew us beneath the cables of the aerial tram that took tourists to the top of Sugarloaf and hovered a hundred yards from the climbers, a man and a woman dangling by harness, rope, and piton. The man was lower than the woman by twenty or thirty feet.
Neither of them moved their arms or legs, but through the binoculars I could see that the woman’s eyes were open. She was crying for help. The man appeared comatose. His rib cage rose and fell erratically.
“I think we’re looking at possible spinal damage,” I said. “Does Rio have a search-and-rescue team?”
“For something like this?” Tavia replied dubiously.
“No,” da Silva answered. “Not for something like this.”
“Then we need to land on top,” I said.
“And do what?” the colonel demanded.
“Mount a rescue,” I said.
“You can do something like that, Jack?” Tavia asked.
“I had a lot of rope training in my early Marine years,” I said. “If the right gear’s up there, yeah, I think I can.”
Da Silva gave me a look of reappraisal and then shouted at the pilot to find a place to land on the mountain’s top. We spiraled up, away from the climbers. The pilot coordinated with security officers at the summit to clear the terrace, and in a minute or two, we put down.
An off-duty Rio police sergeant who’d been on the summit when the accident occurred led us around to the tram station, where one of the big gondolas was docked and empty.
Next to the tram, a sandy-haired woman in her twenties sat with her back to the rail, sobbing. A wiry olive-skinned man crouched next to her, staring off into space. Beside them, turned away from us, stood a taller, darker man who was looking over the railing. All three wore climbing gear.
Ignoring the few other people on the dock, we went straight to them and quickly learned what had happened. Alexandra Patrick was an American from Boulder, Colorado. Her older sister, Tamara, was the woman on the rope.
The young man beside Alexandra was Tamara’s boyfriend, René Leroux, a French expatriate living in Denver. The three of them had been traveling around Brazil seeing various games in the World Cup tournament. All were experienced climbers.
So was the tall Brazilian, Flavio Gomes, who worked for Victor Barros, the comatose man on the rope. Barros’s company had been guiding advanced climbers up the face of Sugarloaf the past eight years. Nothing even close to this had ever happened.
“We set every anchor,” Gomes said. “We check them every time. It all looked solid. And then it wasn’t.”
Gomes, Leroux, and Alexandra had been on a different, easier route than Tamara and Barros. Tamara was a far better climber than her sister or boyfriend and had asked to go up a more difficult way. Gomes’s group had gone first and was one hundred and fifty vertical feet above the other two when, apparently, an anchor bolt gave way, and then another. Only Alexandra saw the entire event.
“They fell at least fifty feet,” she whimpered. “And then they just kind of smashed into each other, whipsawed, and crashed into the wall. I could hear Tamara screaming for help, saying that she couldn’t feel her legs. There was nothing we could do from our position.”
Gomes nodded, chagrined. “I’m a solid climber, but I only just started guiding, and I’ve never been on a rescue like this. It’s out of my league.”
Leroux hung his head, said, “She’s gonna be paralyzed.”
I ignored him, went to the rail, and saw an anchored nylon rope going over a pad on the belly of the cliff and disappearing into the void.
“Were they on this line?” I asked.
“No, that line runs parallel to their rope, offset about eight inches,” Gomes said. “Another one of our normal safety measures.”
Thinking about the position of the injured climbers, thinking about what I was going to have to do to get them off the cliff, I decided against going down the secondary rope.
I looked at da Silva and said, “I need you to make a few things happen very fast, Colonel. Two lives depend on it.”
THIRTY-EIGHT MINUTES later, I was on my belly on the floor of the tramcar. The doors were open. I was looking over the side, straight down more than a thousand feet, and fighting vertigo.
The second I spotted Tamara Patrick on the cliff, I said, “Stop.”
Colonel da Silva repeated the order into a radio. The tram halted and swung on the cable about twenty-five feet out from the summit station.
“How far down are they?” da Silva asked.
“I’m calling it three hundred feet,” I said, getting up to look at two Brazilian soldiers who’d come from an army base located less than a mile from the bottom tram station. They were almost finished attaching a truck winch to the steel floor of the cable car.
“One hundred meters,” I said to the soldiers. “Does it get me there?”
Tavia translated my words into Brazilian Portuguese, and they answered her.
She said, “With the extra rope, they think so.”
Gomes was checking the knots and carabiners that connected a climbing rope to the winch’s quarter-inch steel cable. I checked the space that separated the winch drum from the floor. Three, maybe four inches of clearance. With that much rope going onto the drum, it would be a tight fit.
We threaded the other, looped end of the climbing rope through a large carabiner we’d attached to a steel hook above the door frame. A closed D ring connected the rope to the harness I wore.
“Radio?” da Silva said.
I reached up and double-clicked the mike clipped to my chest.
The other people in the car—da Silva, Tavia, Gomes, the two soldiers, and the off-duty sergeant—nodded. They got in a line and grabbed hold of the rope with gloved hands.
I went to the edge of the open door, willed myself not to look down. Just before I stepped out, I said, “No slipping, now.”
Then my weight came into the harness and my legs were in space, and I was pushing off the bottom of the tram. Free of the car and dropping, I went into a slow twirl that got me dizzy and forced me to close my eyes to the jungle treetops so far below.
Sometimes I think I’m crazy. This was one of those times.
It took them a full minute to lower me the entire length of the climbing rope.
“You’re on winch now.” Da Silva’s voice crackled over the radio.
“Got it,” I said, feeling the descent go smoother and faster.
A minute later, I was almost to Tamara Patrick, eight, maybe nine feet above her and four feet out from the wall.
“Stop,” I said into the mike, and the winch halted.
“Help me!” Tamara called out weakly.
“That’s what I’m here for,” I said. “My name is Jack, and we’re going to get you out of here.”
“I can’t feel anything from the waist down,” she said, starting to cry.
“But you can feel your arms?”
“A little,” she said. “Yes.”
“The left more than the right,” Tamara said, getting herself under control.
“That’s good, that’s a start,” I said, looking down twenty-five feet to the guide hanging there limply.
“Has your guide said anything since the fall?” I asked as I started to kick and pump like a kid on a swing.
“No,” Tamara said. “How are you going to get me off here?”
“With a little imagination,” I said, swinging closer to the wall and then farther away.
On the third swing I caught that secondary rope coming down from the top. I rigged my harness to it and called into the mike, “Give me eight feet of slack, then bring the litter down.”
“Got it,” Tavia said.
I waited until a loop of rope hung almost to the injured climber before I started down. When I reached Tamara’s side, she rolled her head over to look at me, another good sign.
“I’m scared,” she said.
“Me too,” I said. “I hate this kind of shit.”
She smiled feebly. “And I love this kind of shit.”
“Your sister told me that.”
“Am I gonna be paralyzed, Jack?”
There was so much pain and fear in her voice and face that I felt tears well up in my eyes. I looked away and said, “I’m no doctor.”
She said nothing. I glanced at her. She was staring up.
I craned my head back and saw the stiff backboard twisting lazily on a second rope dropping from the tramcar.
“Jack?” Tamara said. “Could you hold my hand until it gets here?”
“I’d be honored,” I said, reaching out and taking her left hand. It felt cold and clammy, and I realized she was probably almost in shock.
“Did you see René up there?” she asked.
“I’m wearing his harness.”
Tamara nodded, her lower lip trembling. “He can’t deal with stuff like this.”
“A paralyzed girlfriend,” she said, tears dripping down her cheeks.
“What is he? An imbecile of titanic proportions?”
Tamara laughed through her tears. “Sometimes.”
I kept up the light chat with her until the backboard reached us. It took quite a bit of finagling on both our parts to get Tamara strapped to the board, and the winch cable rope attached to the four lines supporting it. But we did it.
“Have a nice ride,” I said after I’d separated her from the rope that had saved her. “Very few people have ever done anything like this.”
“Thank you, Jack,” she said.
“You’re welcome,” I said, giving her hand one last squeeze. “And whatever happens, you’re going to be fine in the long run. Okay?”
- On Sale
- Jan 3, 2017
- Page Count
- 400 pages
- Grand Central Publishing