MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) — Thomas Eric Duncan rushed to help his 19-year-old neighbor when she began convulsing days after first complaining of stomach pain. Everyone assumed her health problems were related to her being 7 months pregnant. Still, no ambulance came as Ebola decimates Liberia’s capital.
Soon Duncan, Marthalene Williams’ parents and several others tried to hoist her into a taxi cab bound for a hospital downtown. Within weeks, everyone who helped Williams that day was either sick or dead. The virus is spread through direct contact with saliva, sweat and blood, and all had touched the sick woman’s body.
Duncan is now hospitalized in a special isolation ward in Texas after he fell ill only after leaving Liberia, where nearly 2,000 people have died this year from Ebola. He was traveling to visit his family in the United States while still in Ebola’s incubation period, which can last up to 21 days, and officials said airport screeners in Monrovia did nothing wrong in letting him board the flight.
He has since become a symbol of how Ebola could spread within the United States. Here in Liberia, however, he is just another neighbor infected by a virulent Ebola cluster ravaging this neighborhood of tin-roof homes along 72nd SKD Boulevard.
“My pa and four other people took her to the car. Duncan was in the front seat with the driver and the others were in the backseat with her,” recounted her 15-year-old cousin Angela Garway, standing Thursday in the courtyard between the homes where they all lived. “He was a good person.”
And after several including Duncan became sick through a risky act of compassion, on Thursday neighbors were no longer willing to take that risk.
As 9-year-old Mercy Kennedy sobbed along with neighbors mourning news of her mother’s death, not a person would touch the little girl to comfort her.
Mercy’s mother had helped to wash the pregnant woman’s clothes, and had touched her body after she died at home when no hospital could find space for her, neighbors said. On Thursday, little Mercy walked around in a daze in a torn nightgown and flip-flops, pulling up the fabric to wipe her tears as a group of workers from the neighborhood task force followed the sound of wailing through the thick grove of banana trees and corn plants.
“We love you so dearly, yeah,” one man wearing rubber gloves told her from a safe distance. “We want to take care of you. Have you been playing with your friends here?”
With Mercy’s mother dead, neighbors fear it is only a matter of time before she too shows signs of the virus and they want to know which other children may have come into contact with her while she was fetching water.
Pewu Wolobah, a member of the neighborhood anti-Ebola task force, laments that even as Americans try to trace all of Duncan’s contacts there, the virus is spreading through Duncan’s old neighborhood faster than anyone can keep track.
The aunt of the pregnant victim died on Wednesday after collapsing in her house just next door to the Williams’. Her 15-year-old daughter Angela is left behind along with the pregnant woman’s three younger siblings — Ezo Williams, 16, Tete Williams, 12, and Stanley Williams, 3 — and the family dog.
Their parents left Thursday morning for an Ebola treatment center. As word spreads that they too took a taxi, the health workers express alarm.
“Does anybody know the taxi number or the license plate?” one man calls into the crowd. “We need to find this vehicle!”
All the cases including Duncan appear to have started with Williams, though some wonder how a pregnant woman who stayed at home could have contracted it. Maybe it was her boyfriend Lee — no one has seen him for weeks. Could it have been her close friend known as Baby D, who has since died herself?
Even in death, Williams’ tragedy is multiplying. Neighbors and relatives say more than 100 people came to a wake for her. No one can say for sure how many people may have touched her highly contagious body.
“We had a lot of people come from a great distance to sympathize with her family,” explains Joseph Dolo from the anti-Ebola task force. “She had a lot of friends; she was a very young girl.”