Bird Flu Sparks Memories Of 1918 Pandemic

William H. Sardo, Jr., 94, holds a painting of his father William H. Sardo, while speaking about his memories as a 6 year old during the influenza pandemic of 1918 during a visit to the home he owns in Bethesda, Md. on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2006. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) AP

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.

In the District of Columbia, the first recorded influenza death came on Sept. 21, 1918. The victim, a 24-year-old railroad worker, had been exposed in New York four days earlier. The flu swept through the nation's capital, which had attracted thousands of soldiers and war workers. By the time the pandemic had subsided, at least 30,000 people had become ill and 3,000 had died in the city.

Among the infected was Sardo, who was 6 years old at the time.

He remembers little of his illness but recalls that his mother was terrified.

"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.

The commissioners asked clergy to cancel church services because the pandemic was threatening the "machinery of the federal government," The Washington Star newspaper reported at the time. Pastors protested.

"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."

One slogan was, "Cover up each cough and sneeze. If you don't, you'll spread the disease."

Those who were healthy wore masks when venturing outside. People who were known to be infected were threatened with a $50 fine if they were seen in public. Sardo remembers people throwing buckets of water with disinfectant on their sidewalks to wash away germs from people spitting on the street.

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

A second flu survivor, 99-year-old Ruth Marshall, says she, her two sisters and a brother came down with what they thought was a cold. Then the fever struck and the illness became severe, she said.

Marshall, who lived just steps from the Capitol at the time, said the influenza deaths reported in the newspapers came as a surprise.

"We never thought we were going to die. We did pretty good - a lot of prayers," she said.

Others were not so fortunate. 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.
By Brett Zongker
  • Francie Grace

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