A housekeeper in California was the target of thousands of honey bees in an attack that left her hospitalized and in critical condition, the Orange County Fire Authority tells PEOPLE.
After a team of housekeepers arrived at a client’s home in Orange County, California on Monday morning, one of the cleaners — a woman identified as Maria and in her fifties — ventured back outside to retrieve a mop from her vehicle.
But as she walked toward the car, a swarm of 30,000 to 80,000 Africanized honey bees that were hidden inside of a gas meter outside of the home suddenly emerged and attacked.
“She was screaming and I was telling her, ‘Move from the bees. Come over here,’ ” the homeowner, who only identified herself as Sara, told ABC 7. “But she was covering her head.”
During the chaotic scene, Sara’s son called 911 as another housekeeper grabbed a hose and sprayed the bees with water in the hopes they would disperse — but the relentless insects did not stop attacking her.
By the time Orange County Fire Authority officials arrived, Maria was completely covered by the bees.
“[The bees] were almost in clusters,” Ryan Wilson, an OCFA paramedics who responded to the scene, told NBC 4. “Maybe the size of a golf ball all over her… she had them on her face, around her mouth, around her ears, her neck and her hair.”
With no time to waste, paramedics skipped proper protocol — which recommends that they put on full body gear, then tape over every opening to protect themselves from the insects — and instead placed all of their focus on saving Maria.
“When they got off, they immediately started to get stung by bees,” OFCA Capt. Tony Bommarito tells PEOPLE. “They noticed there was no time to put on any of that stuff, so they grabbed an extinguisher and ran over to the patient, sprayed her down with a CO2 extinguisher, then grabbed her and ran two blocks to get away from the bees.”
Once they escaped a majority of the swarm, the firefighters placed Maria in an ambulance and transported her to Saddleback Hospital in nearby Laguna Hills.
“There were still bees attached to her,” Bommarito says. “Bees were in the ambulance en route to the hospital, and bees that went into the emergency room with her.”
In all, she was stung more than 200 times.
Two of the firefighters who responded to the attack were also stung and treated at a hospital, but were both released on Monday and returned to duty the same day.
Maria was listed in critical condition as of Monday night, but she is expected to survive, Bommarito says. He credits the firefighters who sacrificed their own safety during the attack with saving her life.
“Quite honestly, and I don’t say this often, had the firefighters taken the time to do the proper protocol and procedure, the woman would have died for sure,” he says. “The fact that she is expected to survive is purely and unequivocally due to the firefighters making the decision to run in there.”
Africanized bees, also called killer bees, look like normal honey bees but are far more aggressive. They are responsible for hundreds of human deaths since the strain first emerged in Brazil in the 1950s. The insects have been present in America for around 20 years.