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Witness to 1918 flu: 'Death was there all the time'

98-year-old man recalls pandemic that killed millions

By Kelley Colihan
CNN

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Kenneth Crotty: "Every morning when you got up, you asked, 'Who died during the night?' "

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FRAMINGHAM, Massachusetts (CNN) -- Kenneth Crotty was 11 years old when the "great flu" hit his neighborhood in Framingham, outside Boston.

"It was scary, because every morning when you got up, you asked, 'Who died during the night?' You know death was there all the time."

The 1918 pandemic is thought to have killed anywhere from 20 million to 100 million people around the world. Researchers recently re-created the virus to study it for clues on how to fight the current strain of bird flu, which threatens to become the next great flu pandemic.

As an altar boy, Crotty said he served in more than 30 Masses for the dead, some for flu victims, some for those who died on the battlefields of World War I, which was in its final weeks.

"They'd have those monstrous big candles on the first six aisles on the body that was drawn down, and I remember the heartbreak I felt when I saw that person lugged down the center aisle, down the steps packed into a small truck," he said.

At 98, Crotty resides in a nursing home in his hometown in Massachusetts. In 1918, he lived there with his parents and four sisters.

He didn't get sick, but two of his sisters came down with the flu. His mother kept him downstairs, while his ill sisters stayed upstairs until they were well enough to move about.

Five neighbors on his street of about 20 houses died during the season of death, he recalled.

"People were very leery of each other. And when we went out, we wore a mask over our noses and mouths," he said.

Crotty said people also covered their shirts with holy medals to "ward off the evil of this terrible disease."

Historian John Barry, author of "The Great Influenza," said the disease "killed more people in 24 weeks than AIDS has killed in 24 years."

The worst-hit U.S. cities were Philadelphia, New York and Boston.

Barry said vigilantes patrolled the streets of Albuquerque, New Mexico, making people wear their masks.

President Woodrow Wilson continued sending troop ships to Europe, something Barry describes as "floating coffins."

Treatment was limited in 1918 -- Crotty said people tried folk medicine, prayer, anything.

"There were no antibiotics, there was just hope that you'd get through, that fate was kind enough that it wouldn't hit you or yours," he said.

Bayer aspirin was just hitting the market. But because it was a German company, and Germany was a foe in World War I, many Americans distrusted it and even believed the new product was a form of germ warfare.

A theory, Barry notes, that was even suggested by U.S. government officials. He said the pandemic caused the United States largely to "grind to a stop."

"Fear drove everybody inside," he said. Across the United States, "60 percent absentee rates" and empty city streets were common, Barry said.

He said the climate of fear was brought on by a mistrust of government officials and the press.

"People could see while they were being told on the one hand that it's ordinary influenza, on the other hand they are seeing their spouse die in 24 hours or less, bleeding from their eyes, ears, nose and mouth, turning so dark that people thought it was the black death," Barry says said. "People knew that they were being lied to; they knew that this was not ordinary influenza."

Nearly as quickly as it struck, the 1918 flu seemed to disappear.

Did it mutate? Or did people on Earth now have antibodies?

Leading scientists say both likely happened. Scientists say weakened strains of the 1918 virus have shown up since then. And as people are exposed to flu strains, they develop resistance to them.

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