It was a late spring day in 1981. Ana Severino clocked off early from the paediatrics ward in Hospital de Madrid. The new national healthcare system meant there were more and more staff on the ward, so no-one would notice her leave a few minutes before the end of her shift.
She walked briskly down the busy streets. The air was buzzing with people preparing for the fiesta. Intriguing splashes of colour caught the corner of her eye; red and gold streamers being cut for the floats, feathers being dyed blue and green. She stopped to buy food from a mercadillo. The burgeoning sun accentuated the sweet pungent smell of meat fat sizzling on a hot surface, the faint scent of cheeses, somewhere the aroma of warm fresh bread, a drift of cut herbs and roasting vegetables.
She haggled harder than usual; she had been short of money lately, and she wanted to buy a present for her son Juan. She bought fruits and vegetables, fish, olive oil and a bottle of wine. Only the essentials. She politely declined when a passing policeman offered to help carry her bags. She was looking forward to making lunch for Juan. It was his eighth birthday.
Two months earlier, on the twenty-third of February, Lieutenant Colonel Gonzalo Hermenegildo had attempted to overthrow the Spanish government. He stormed the Cortes with an army of two-hundred members of the paramilitary Civil Guard. They fired automatic weapons into the air, and took 350 Members of Parliament hostage.
On televisions across the world it looked like a surreal kind of opera. Hermenegildo was a short man with a dense triangular moustache, wearing a stern beret and a meticulous blue uniform. He marched back and forth directing the mass of people almost ceremonially. The hostages were instructed to lie down, and they did, as if choreographed. Hermenegildo was in centre stage, surrounded by the amphitheatre of parliamentary seats, spotlighted by shafts of light through the acrid dust from the bullet-ridden ceilings.
A brave or foolhardy hostage called out the name of the former Prime Minister, to show his solidarity for democracy and to snub the rebels. Several other hostages joined in, chanting. “Adolfo Suárez! Adolfo Suárez!” Adolfo Suárez himself drew back, trying timidly to hide. Hermenegildo fired a shot towards the dissenters, which landed in a burst of splintering wood. The crowd went instantly silent. He had not intended to miss.
Hermenegildo declared a state of emergency and ordered tanks onto the streets of Valencia. His junta commandeered all radio and TV broadcast frequencies to deliver a dogmatic ultimatum: “Spain thrived under General Franco’s dictatorship. Democracy has failed. We embrace the absolute authority of King Carlos.”
On the first of May, Ana Severino felt too ill to go into work. Her son was ill as well, but she was too weak to tend to him. Her neighbour Aarón got a call from the hospital; they were concerned by her absence. Aarón knocked and knocked on Ana’s door, but there was no answer. Eventually, he let himself in through the window. He saw Ana and little Juanito, and immediately called for an ambulance.
Juan Severino was pronounced dead on arrival. The doctors did not tell Ana right away.
Ana was feverish and mumbling. Something about the food being poisoned. She had hosted a party, Juan’s birthday party, and many people had eaten the food. The doctors contacted her family, and sure enough, they were sick too.
Within days, four family members had joined Ana in the hospital, all stricken with the same mysterious disease. The doctors wore stern faces and said things that Ana’s family did not understand. Interstitial pulmonary infiltrates. Asthenia. Seborrhea.
Soon, more patients arrived with the same symptoms. One or two a day at first. Then six. Then thirty. The doctors could not cure them. The doctors could not explain their condition.
Lieutenant Colonel Gonzalo Hermenegildo’s coup lasted just one day. King Carlos made a charismatic stand against him, announcing on national television that the democratic government must be defended. He ordered the armed forces to take all necessary measures to quell the insurgency. A coup would not be tolerated.
Hermenegildo had tried to drum up support from other army units around the country, but he had misjudged the strength or nature of their ideologies. His own army became nervous and they forced him to surrender.
The hostages were freed and the rebel Civil Guards were arrested. Hermenegildo was immediately transferred to a military prison. He was told he would be thrown into a solitary cell and left to rot. His throat was so filled with rage and shame that he looked forward to the jail cell, to get away from the judging eyes of his armed escorts – to put distance and time between him and his failed revolution.
At the prison he was stripped of his uniform. His triangular moustache was shaved. The Chief Warden laughed at him, then spat in his face. Hermenegildo remained silent, his teeth clenched, until just before he was left in his cell:
“I vow to fight this country,” spat Hermenegildo. “I will avenge.”
Ana’s health slowly improved, but the number of cases of this mysterious illness was reaching epidemic proportions. Yesterday, 199 new cases were identified, today another 230. More deaths had been reported. The doctors had to ask her to leave the hospital to make room for sicker people. And, of course, they had to stop lying to her about her son.
Juan is dead. The doctor’s parting words filled her so completely that she felt empty of anything else. She was empty even of tears. She did not go home. She walked across the hospital to the paediatrics ward, where she had not been to work for three weeks. Her fellow medics recognised her but said nothing.
The ward was lined with sick children. Two to a bed, and more spilling out onto the floor. Dozens of them. Fifty at least, maybe sixty. The air was thick with their fevered cries and desolate moans. This was a plague. A mass infection. What could it be? Something in the water supply? A virus? Judgment Day?
Ana felt weak. She leaned on the wall and closed her eyes. She tried to concentrate, to be rational. She calmed herself and gathered her thoughts. She vowed to find out what had killed her son. She marched to the cupboard and pulled out a spare uniform. She would not leave the hospital until the mystery was solved.
Hermenegildo persuaded a prison guard to carry messages to and from the outside without censoring them. The guard was sympathetic to Hermenegildo’s cause, and was promised a great reward when the revolution finally succeeded.
Over several weeks, Hermenegildo remotely established a base of supporters, mostly Civil Guard members that had stayed out of jail after the failed coup. From his solitary prison cell, with surreptitiously exchanged little notes, Hermenegildo coordinated another attack.
Eventually, the Chief Warden caught the mutinous guard and the messages stopped. Hermenegildo’s final instruction had been to attack the country and hold its people to ransom until the government and the King conceded power.
Sure enough, on a late spring day in 1981, the attack had started.
As the numbers of stricken people climbed into the thousands, and the numbers of dead into the hundreds, Ana was no closer to finding the cause of the epidemic. She had done countless tests on numerous patients. She had systematically tried every combination of drugs, but nobody responded to any kind of treatment.
She avoided listening to the radio or glimpsing the television. The general population had started to panic, and with the lack of any real progress the news stations had resorted to reporting rumours. People were afraid to leave their homes; afraid to eat or drink; afraid to breathe each other’s air. The plague seemed inevitable.
Ana felt like she was losing energy, losing hope. Every muscle in her body ached, but she fought on, no longer out of determination to discover the cause but out of fear of returning home and leaving her son behind.
And, all around her, children kept dying. Each time another soul departed, she felt personally responsible. Doing everything she possibly could was not enough for the wailing mothers, the grieving fathers.
Each night before she slept on the hospital floor, she prayed. Only God could have the wrath to inflict such a plague. Only God could forgive its victims. She prayed to hear that one word, the word of forgiveness that would guide her to the cause and the cure of the epidemic.
Nearly two months after the first casualty, the youngest victim yet was delivered to Ana’s ward. Sara Zoraida was just four months old. Sara’s grandmother, Señora Zoraida, was hysterical with worry.
“Was it something I fed her?”
This struck a chord somewhere deep inside Ana’s intuition. This baby was so far the only victim under six months old. Perhaps there was something that Grandma Zoraida had fed baby Sara that would normally only feature in the diet of older children and adults. She asked the question.
“I feed her formula,” explained Señora Zoraida frantically, “from the supermarket. That’s it, nothing else. I always sterilise the bottle. Sometimes I add a little oil to the bottle, for her health.”
Ana thought back to what she had bought before Juan died. Fruits and vegetables, fish, olive oil, a bottle of wine. Only the essentials.
“Señora Zoraida,” implored Ana, “what kind of oil do you use?”
“I bought olive oil. A five-litre bottle, unmarked. From the mercadillo outside the hospital.”
Ana stood stunned. Señora Zoraida became even more agitated, but Ana did not notice. A five-litre bottle, unmarked. Ana’s chin puckered. She cried – sobbed – for the first time in two months, for the loss of her son.
Hermenegildo overheard the prison guards talking in sensational whispers as they did their final rounds of the night. He leant against the door to hear. A plague. Thousands of people affected, and still spreading. No known cause, no known cure. The guards passed out of earshot. He paced in his cell, and then jumped in surprise when someone knocked on the door.
“Who is it?” called Hermenegildo.
“Shhh! I bring an important message from outside.” It was the mutinous prison guard that had helped Hermenegildo reform his army. He was taking a great risk delivering this message. A note appeared through the small hole in the bottom of the door designed for food trays.
Suddenly, Hermenegildo heard a curse from the messenger guard and the sound of him running away. Then the unmistakeable, steady footfalls of the Chief Warden.
Hermenegildo read the note quickly. His face fell. The Chief Warden unlocked the door and burst in. Hermenegildo backed up against the wall, reading the end of the note, then he tried to stuff it into his mouth.
The Chief Warden grabbed it from him. It ripped. Hermenegildo swallowed half of it; the Chief Warden had the rest.
The Chief Warden beat Hermenegildo with a cosh and then retreated to the doorway to read his half of the note. His eyes widened. His jaw fell.
“You caused this plague?” uttered the Chief Warden in disbelief. “YOU?”
“Yes,” replied Hermenegildo through a bloodied nose.
“Do you know how many people have died? How many children?”
“They will keep dying until this country is free of democracy and its corruption.”
The Chief Warden glanced at the torn note again. “Which olive oil supplier did you poison?”
Hermenegildo had swallowed that secret.
“Which supplier did you poison?” repeated the Chief Warden. “Tell me so we can put a stop to this madness.”
“Set me free and I will tell you.”
“I will not set you free. You have become a disgusting terrorist. You are the most evil person in the world. Tell me the name of the factory.”
Hermenegildo hesitated. His face twisted awkwardly. He fought to repress his emotions.
“No,” said Hermenegildo firmly.
“You will stand there and let hundreds more people die, for the sake of saying one little word?”
Hermenegildo said nothing. The Chief Warden stared at him in wonder. Then left, locking the door behind him.
Alone in his cell, Hermenegildo allowed his stubbornness and pride to fall away, and he realised what burdens they had been. Each burning tear represented a regret, each sob an ounce of shame.
He beat on his cell door and called out the name of the factory, although he knew no-one would hear him. The one word that would save a thousand innocent lives. He called it out just to hear it echo in his own head.
Once the cause of the epidemic had been discovered, the government worked quickly to minimise its impact. Public service announcements were broadcast on every frequency, press conferences were held, and signs were put up at every stall in the mercadillos. An oil recall program was initiated, and free safe olive oil was made available for anyone that was concerned about their own supply.
Ana Severino was instrumental in finding the source of the outbreak. The unmarked five-litre bottles were traced back to a particular oil distributor. Their factory was immediately shut down, and the chemical agent responsible for the epidemic was isolated. But the truth provided scant comfort for Ana.
The final toll was 20,000 sick, 800 dead. The government decided not to make it public that a fledgling terrorist group were responsible; the official story was that the oil distributor had been in blatant disregard of health and safety regulations.
Gonzalo Hermenegildo was found dead in his cell the morning after the Chief Warden’s visit.
On 23 February 1981 Lieutenant-Colonel Antonio Tejero led 200 armed Civil Guard officers into the Spanish Parliament in an attempted coup d’état. King Juan Carlos I refused to endorse the coup and it ended bloodlessly, effectively spelling the end of Francoist fascism.
Later that year, a previously unknown musculoskeletal disease swept across Spain with devastating consequences. The cause was traced to the consumption of rapeseed oil that had been intended for industrial rather than food use, and tainted with aniline. Hundreds died, and thousands were left permanently disabled.
This story imagines a connection between these two incidents. But the true story behind “toxic oil syndrome” is even stranger. In reality, the lethal epidemic was nothing to do with tainted oil, but most likely caused by the consumption of toxic organophosphates used as pesticides on fruits such as tomatoes. A massive conspiracy by the Spanish government, bolstered by commercial interests, ensured the evidence was so thoroughly manipulated that the truth may never be known.
Sadly, science is increasingly beholden to corporate sponsorship, and its conclusions are often massaged accordingly. So: Be wary of taking a sensational story about a scientific study at face value. And wash your tomatoes.