The Hot Zone

The Hot Zone Summary and Analysis of "Smashdown" (pp. 285-326)


The next morning, Jerry Jaax, Gene Johnson, and the rest of the team gather at USAMRIID to collect equipment before setting off for the monkey house. The front page story of The Washington Post that day reads: “Deadly Ebola Virus Found in VA. Laboratory Monkey.” Colonel Peters is quoted extensively in the story, but he asserts that the military operation at Reston is nothing more than routine. To help maintain this image, the team members are all dressed in civilian clothing and do not put on space suits until they enter the monkey house.

Jerry Jaax is first to enter the facility, along with Captain Mark Haines, also a veterinarian in the Army. Haines has experience with scuba diving, so Jerry feels comfortable that his partner will not panic in the space suit. The two men move to the staging area, where they put on racal suits - field biological hazard suits that contain a battery-powered ventilation system. After making sure that the seals in their gloves and boots are thoroughly taped, Jerry and Captain Haines enter the building through a make-shift gray zone - an intermediate area between the hot zone and the outside world.

As they open the door into the hot zone, Jerry and Captain Haines see two Hazelton workers walking toward them wearing only basic respirators. Jerry realizes that all entrances to the hot area have not been sealed off as they previously thought. The workers direct Jerry and Captain Haines to Room H and then inform Dan Dalgard. Dalgard is surprised to see Jerry and Captain Haines wearing space suits but proceeds with giving them a tour of the room.

Shortly after Jerry enters the building, Nancy Jaax arrives at the site. She reminds the soldiers to look out for any rips in their suits and also to be wary of aggressive monkeys who might bite. After suiting up, Nancy joins the group in Room H, where she selects four monkeys to euthanize and take back to Fort Detrick for testing. This time, when Nancy opens up the dead monkeys, she can clearly identify the signs of Ebola. Meanwhile, the rest of the team faces the arduous task of euthanizing the 65 remaining monkeys in Room H.

The next morning, Dan Dalgard arrives at the Reston facility and sees one of the monkey caretakers wearing a protective suit outside the building, against Dalgard’s direct orders. Dalgard’s anger quickly turns into fear as the caretaker, Milton Frantig, starts vomiting. Dalgard realizes that two of the employees at the facility are now sick. After helping Frantig into the building, Dalgard drives to the main Hazelton office where he recommends immediate evacuation of the facility. An ambulance is called to pick up Milton Frantig, which arrives at the Reston facility just as a television-news van pulls up.

After coordinating with the senior managers of Hazelton, Dalgard asks Colonel Peters and USAMRIID to assume legal responsibility for the facility. Colonel Peters is unwilling to have the Army assume full liability, but he and General Russell agree to sign a simple letter confirming military ownership of the monkey house. They agree that Jerry Jaax will need to lead a much larger team into the facility in order to euthanize all of the monkeys. Given this new directive, Jerry Jaax convenes a meeting with civilian staff and animal-care technicians at the Institute and asks for volunteers.

The next morning, the new recruits congregate behind the monkey house, where Jerry Jaax has already divided them into teams of two. Gene Johnson informs the group of the recent development with Milton Frantig and explains that the Ebola strain is likely airborne. Jerry and his partner, Sergeant Thomas Amen, are the first to suit up and cross into the hot zone. While the other teams are putting on their space suits, Jerry and Sergeant Amen go through each room of the building in order to feed the monkeys and visually track the spread of the outbreak. Jerry then divides the group into sub-teams, with one group collecting blood samples, one group euthanizing the monkeys, and one group performing necropsies.


When Colonel Peters is appointed head of the USAMRIID operation, he acknowledges that at least 50% of his duties will involve keeping the press from learning about the outbreak. While the virus has deadly potential, Peters believes that the greater danger would be a mass panic, especially because the outbreak is occurring so close to Washington, D.C. Because Peters is unable to completely block news coverage of the Reston facility, his strategy is to emphasize the mundane and “routine” aspects of the operation. Despite Peters’ efforts, two news crews still visit the Reston facility at various points in the operation, but neither crew discerns the true gravity of the situation.

Given the sensitive nature of the operation, Peters’ decision to block news coverage is understandable. Yet, at the same time, his decision to prioritize the operation is questionable in light of the danger to the nearby population. Preston makes it clear that, despite their best efforts, the operation has not been wholly isolated from the outside world, and Peters’ actions could place the entire community at great risk. Not only do Jerry Jaax and Captain Haines discover Hazelton workers entering the hot zone without wearing full biohazard protection, but Dalgard observes one of the caretakers vomiting outside of the building. Moreover, in describing the location of the Reston facility, Preston notes that a childcare center is located nearby. If the Reston virus is airborne, Peters is potentially risking the lives of the children at the center, solely for the sake of maintaining the appearance of a “routine” operation.

In this section, Preston also reiterates the bureaucratic issues that continue to hamper the operation. While the upper-level management at Hazelton Research Products is finally willing to give the Army control over the monkey house, they want USAMRIID to assume full liability for anything that might happen as a result of the outbreak. The company is solely concerned with protecting itself from the legal ramifications of a full-scale outbreak, even though it is responsible for bringing the virus to the United States. Peters and Russell are similarly determined to avoid liability in case of disaster. As in the other cases of bureaucratic discussions, this argument over legal issues does nothing but delay USAMRIID’s ability to contain the virus, all while revealing each organization’s true priority.

The fact that Hazelton workers are working in the hot zone when Jaax and Haines arrive also speaks to failures of communication between the two entities. While it is possible that Hazelton is refusing to take the situation seriously, it is more likely that USAMRIID has not shared sufficient information about the Ebola virus. Even Dalgard, who first contacts USAMRIID, is surprised to see Jaax and Haines in biohazard space suits when he is only wearing a basic respirator. If the outbreak is extreme enough to necessitate space suits, USAMRIID is responsible for communicating the danger to the owner of the facility so that necessary steps can be taken. As it is, the facility is only shut down when Dalgard sees Frantig vomiting outside the building and personally insists on evacuation.

Jerry Jaax’s behavior in the facility echoes the moral quandary faced by both Nancy Jaax and Dan Dalgard at earlier points in the book. Although Jerry is tasked with euthanizing the entire monkey population, he is still a veterinarian and wants the animals to suffer as little as possible. As a result, his first task is to walk through the entire facility and feed the monkeys in each room. This act could be viewed as a waste of valuable time, but it allows Jerry to come to terms with the moral dilemma of destroying hundreds of possibly healthy animals.