Marie Ritelis, a 47-year-old retired McLean antiques dealer, had just finished hosing off her back yard terrace last Friday when she spotted the bug on a nearby fence. It was the size of an ordinary cockroach, with wings. She called her husband.
"I said, 'Andy, I think that's one of those flying roaches.' So, he went to put his finger on it, to see if it would run. You know how a roach runs? This one didn't run. It took off.
"I said, 'Andy, those are FLYING ROACHES FROM FLORIDA. I just got through pulling cicadas out of my pool. Don't tell me I'm going to have to start pulling roaches out of the pool."
The next night, Marie Ritelis found another of the harmless winged bugs crawling on a door jamb. This was a little too close for comfort. She decided to trap it in a Ball canning jar for further examination.
There was no doubt in Ritelis' mind, however, that the inch-long crusty bug was a Blatella asahinai, the much-publicized flying cockroach that has infested parts of Florida, and is moving slowly north -- a cockroach capable of traveling 120 feet in a single flight, a cockroach so fearless that it will fly at people and barbecue grills.
"At least when they run, you've got a shot at stepping on them," said Ritelis. "But when they fly, you don't have a prayer."
A separate conversation with another Northern Virginia resident -- Mary Beth Walsh, a 44-year-old Great Falls housewife -- confirmed that Walsh, too, had spotted flying cockroaches.
"I was sitting at the table, drinking a cup of coffee, and something flew by," said Walsh. "I said, 'My God, what was that.' So, I got up close, realized it was a roach, and killed it immediately." Walsh ground hers in the garbage disposal.
Not Ritelis. Yesterday, convinced she had discovered something new to the area, she wasted no time picking up the telephone to report it.
"Listen," she said, "I do not cherish the idea of a flying roach."
Previous news accounts had warned of the advance of the Florida roach, indicating that it wouldn't establish itself in the Washington area for at least several years.
Still, "I pray to God they're not in my basement," Ritelis said.
Her roach specimen was in the jar, but despite holes punched in the wax paper lid, it appeared to be "conking out."
"You know what would be nice?" Ritelis asked. "It would be nice if you got here before he died."
Several pest control companies reported that they have received numerous roach calls in the past month, but that only a handful of residents claimed to have spotted the elusive flying roach from Florida.
"When those articles about the roaches in Florida first started appearing I didn't believe them, and I don't believe them now," said a skeptical Fred Gunnels, owner of Holiday Pest Control.
Still, there was the tiniest of chances.
Gunnels, as well as Kevin Kordek, an entomologist for Paramount Pest Control, both decided to drive to McLean and have a look.
Ritelis said that was fine, except that the roach had just died. "Oh no, he didn't," she corrected. "He's moving his front legs. But, I can tell he's not feeling good because he's on his back."
The men arrived separately.
"It looked just like every other Pennsylvania wood roach I've ever seen," Kordek reported afterward.
"Wood roach," agreed Gunnels.
As the name suggests, wood roaches live primarily in wood piles, under loose bark and hollow trees. They cannot survive inside houses, and are not associated with unsanitary conditions. "A trim, pretty creature," suggests the Handbook of Pest Control, sixth edition.
Ritelis said she was relieved, and promised to preserve the wood roach long enough for a photograph. "He lost one of his legs. He must have eaten it. But, listen, I'm being real nice to him. I brought him into the air conditioning. I fed him. I gave him water.
"I mean, if they're going to take a picture of him, I don't want him dead, right?"