Tuesday, December 19, 2006


Some of the last survivors of the world's worst disaster, which killed 50 to 100 million people, remember the very worst of times.

From the Washington Post :

At the height of the flu pandemic in 1918, William H. Sardo Jr. remembers the pine caskets stacked in the living room of his family's house, a funeral home in Washington, D.C.

The city had slowed to a near halt. Schools were closed. Church services were banned. The federal government limited its hours of operation. People were dying -- some who took ill in the morning were dead by night.

''That's how quickly it happened,'' said Sardo, 94, who lives in an assisted living facility just outside the nation's capital. ''They disappeared from the face of the earth.''

Sardo is among the last survivors of the 1918 flu pandemic. Their stories offer a glimpse at the forgotten history of one of the world's worst plagues, when the virus killed at least 50 million people and perhaps as many as 100 million.

More than 600,000 people in the United States died of what was then called ''Spanish Influenza.'' The flu seemed to be particularly lethal for otherwise healthy young adults, many of whom suffocated from the buildup of liquids in their lungs.

In the United States, the first reported cases surfaced at an Army camp in Kansas as World War I began winding down. The virus quickly spread among soldiers at U.S. camps and in the trenches of Europe. It paralyzed many communities as it circled the world.


''They kept me well separated from everybody,'' said Sardo, who lived with his parents, two brothers and three other family members. His family quarantined him in the bedroom he had shared with his brother. Everyone in the family wore masks.

The city began shutting down. The federal government staggered its hours to limit crowding on the streets and on streetcars. Commissioners overseeing the district closed schools in early October, along with playgrounds, theaters, vaudeville houses and ''all places of amusement.'' Dances and other social gatherings were banned.

''There was a feeling that they couldn't turn to God, other than in prayer,'' Sardo said. ''They liked the feeling of going to church, and they were forbidden.''

The flu's spread and the ensuing restrictions ''made everybody afraid to go see anybody,'' he said.

''It changed a lot of society,'' Sardo said. ''We became more individualistic.''

In a list of 12 rules to prevent the disease's spread, the Army's surgeon general wrote that people should ''avoid needless crowding,'' open windows and ''breathe deeply'' when the air is ''pure'' and ''wash your hands before eating.''

At the time, rumors swirled that the Germans had spread the disease -- which Sardo did not believe.


As the death toll started to mount, there was a shortage of coffins. Funeral homes could not keep up. Sardo's father, who owned William H. Sardo & Co., and other funeral-home directors turned to soldiers for help embalming and digging thousands of graves.

Talk of the threat of another pandemic brings back memories for Sardo, who says he has gotten a flu shot every year they are available.

''It scares the hell out of me. It does,'' Sardo said.

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