It was a case of ducks run amok.
Workers at the Trailways bus depot in downtown Washington suddenly found themselves delivering baby ducklings instead of parcels yesterday when a shipment of 90 dozen duck eggs started hatching in the depot's warm baggage room.
The eggs had been sent from New Jersey for the Mekong Center, a Vietnamese grocery store in Arlington. But, after incubating in a warm corner of the depot of as much as 10 days, the eggs suddenly started coming to life yesterday morning.
Nancy Christiansen, manager of the bus terminal, was searching for a package when she heard what she thought was the sound of a rat. Peering into one of the boxes, she almost was poked in the eye with a tiny beak.
"We opened it up, and we saw four or five chicks that had been born," she said, cradling one of her newborn charges. Tearing open the other boxes, Christiansen and other workers quickly arranged trays, each with a dozen eggs, under two infrared heating lamps to keep them warm.
News of the nativity scene quickly sped through the three-story depot at 1200 I St. NW, and the baggage room-cum-nursery was soon filled with employes.
"Nancy called upstairs and told us about these ducks, and I thought she was crazy," said Helen Davenport, who had left her calculator in the auditing department to attend the births.
"We've been helping them out all morning," said Christiansen as she gently lifted part of a white shell from the head of one baby duck struggling in its shell. She then coaxed the lower half of the shell from the golfball-sized wet yellow bundle.
"He's born," she cried triumphantly, while some of the men yelled, Mother Nature."
At her feet were three boxes, one containing scampering yellow ducklings who were only an hour old. Two others held the newborns, some drying and some trying to stand up on weak, wobbly legs and webbed feet only to plop down again, regain their breath and try again. Nearby were cracked eggs containing little ducks who had not survived.
Some of them had been born at the bottom of the shipping boxes and had suffocated, Christiansen said.
Although Christiansen said that the Mekong company first said it did not want the eggs yesterday, an employe came to the depot about 2 1/2 hours later and took away both the live and dead ducks and the unhatched eggs. Christiansen had been offering the ducks to employes and customers when the man showed up.
Lee Nguyen, owner of the Mekong Center, said he had ordered the eggs for a friend with a large farm in Charlottesville, and had not gotten over to pick them up because he had been busy.
Christiansen said that the man who picked up the ducks told her they would be delivered to a Tysons Corner restaurant and served as duck soup. But Nguyen vehemently denied that and, in fact duck soup is usually made by using the carcass of an adult duck.
Fairfax County health officials inspected the Imperial Gardens restaurant at Tysons Corner, which Nguyen owns, but said they found only chicken eggs there yesterday afternoon.
But Christiansen and the other new parents were not about to see their adopted children into soup, real or imagined. They had put aside 19 of the ducks to take home to their children and kept them after the man had left. Another two dozen ducks had been given away before the man arrived, Christiansen said.
As to why the ducks suddenly appeared, duck experts said they must have been close to hatching when they were shipped. After a month-long incubation period, they said, the ducks will hatch in humid temperatures close to 100 degrees.
Said one bus depot employe of the morning's flurry of feathers, "Greyhound went to the dogs and Trailways to the ducks."