- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 17, 2006

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 the District.

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 Mr. Sardo, 94, who now lives in a Chevy Chase assisted-living facility, just across the District line. “They disappeared from the face of the Earth.”

Mr. 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 U.S., the first reported cases surfaced at an Army camp in Kansas as World War I was ending. 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, 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 city, which had attracted thousands of soldiers and war workers. By the time the pandemic had subsided, at least 30,000 people in the city had become ill and 3,000 had died.

Among the infected was Mr. Sardo, who was 6 at the time.

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

“They kept me well separated from everybody,” said Mr. 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 federal government staggered its work 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 reported. Pastors protested.

“There was a feeling that [residents] couldn’t turn to God, other than in prayer,” Mr. Sardo said. “They liked the feeling of going to church, and they were forbidden.”

The spreading flu and the ensuing restrictions “made everybody afraid to go see anybody,” he said. “It changed a lot of society. We became more individualistic.”

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. Mr. 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 Mr. Sardo did not believe.

Another flu survivor, 99-year-old Ruth Marshall, says she, her two sisters and a brother thought they had a cold. Then the fever struck and the illness became severe, she said.

“We never thought we were going to die,” she said. “We did pretty good — a lot of prayers.”

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