When 38 young Marines, severly burned in a freak barracks fire in Japan, arrived in San Antonio 10 days ago after an air evacuation that recalled the Vietnam era, the survival chances of 19 were placed at less than 50 percent.
One died en route to the famed burn unit at Brooke Army Medical Center, and another died last week.
But today, in a quiet ward at the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research, 36 were defying the odds.
The hospital reported that 18 of the young members of a battalion of the Third Marine Division remain in critical condition. Seven are in serious condition and 11 in satisfactory condition.
Most of those in critical condition suffered burns over 50 percent of their body surfaces.
Specialists at the only U.S. military burn unit say cautiously that many of the patients are faring better than might be expected.
"Most are between the ages of 17 and 22," said Dr. Michael Walters. "They are young and healthy and have been engaged in strenuous physical exercise."
Dr. Walters, a surgeon who headed the evacuation team that flew to Japan to bring the Marines to Brooke, emphasized that statistics argue against the survival chances of those with massive burns. Roughly, the risk of death a burn patient runs is estimated by adding the percentage of the body-burn to the patient's age.
A 20-year-old with a 50 percent burn would face a 70 percent chance of death, Walters said.
"They are all taking care of each other, and have tremendous motivation and determination," said Brooke public affairs officer Audrey Urbanczyk. "Everyone is pleased they are faring as well as they are."
Helping some of the Marines beat the odds was quick thinking and action at the scene of the fire. Helping all of them was a remarkable air evacuation effort which brought the victims to San Antonio just 30 hours after word of the disaster was flashed to Brooke.
Walters was performing a skin graft operation on a Navy wife from Jacksonville, Fla., when a call came in assigning him to the evacuation team. jSix hours later he was in the air.
"This was the largest evacuation of burn patients that I know of," Walters said. "It took 24 hours and 12 minutes to go from San Antonio to Yokota air base, pick up the patients and bring them right back. The Air Force was really doing its job."
Walters said that, during the flight to Japan, members of the team, composed of three doctors, three nurses and three clinical specialists, planned the triage (assigning of priorities) and stabilization steps they would take when they reached Yokota.
Two of the Marines were found to be too seriously injured to be returned to the burn center. Others had only minor injuries and remained in Japan.
At the burn center today two patients who have been making good progress told of their brush with death on the afternoon of Oct. 19.
"It lasted a couple of minutes at most, but it felt like 50 years," said Pfc. George Spotts, 19, of Norristown, Pa.
"It just hit all at once" said Lance Cpl. Bradley Cope, 21, of Crawfordsville, Ind.
Both were burned about the face and hands. Sitting in a cramped burn unit office, they took turns telling the story of the fire, a freak accident caused when Typhoon Tip, one of the most damaging storms to hit Japan in recent years, ruptured a gasoline storage tank at Camp Fuji in eastern Honshu.
Confined to Quonset huts because of the typhoon, the Marines were occupying themselves in familiar ways. "I was reading a motocycle magazine," said Spott, "A few guys were working on models," Cope added. "Some were grubbing down, and some were crashing out."
Cope, in his bunk, suddenly smelled gasoline.
"One guy yelled, 'don't light anything,'" Cope continued, "and we started to get out. But before we could get out the door it went 'boom.'" The fire had enveloped the rear of the hut, and the men raced toward the front, but were too late.
"We both got our faces burned," said Cope. "But Spotts jerked me back inside. Then we were in the middle of the hut and didn't know what to do. We thought it was the end."
They heard glass breaking and glimpsed light through a small window. They pushed and pulled each other through it.
How big was the window? "It was a lot smaller than I am," replied the broad-shouldered, 206-pound Spotts.
As Spotts talked, he exercised his reddened, swollen hands.
"You have to move your hands and stretch the skin to keep it from freezing in position," Cope said.
"I kept my eyebrows. I didn't feel like being a crispy critter," Spotts said. But his face glistened with a special burn ointment, and his ears were thickly coated with the white cream, an antibacterial compound developed at the institute.
In some cases, the burn surgeons used donor skin for temporary biological dressings. Later, a patient's own skin is used as a permanent graft.
Most of the Marines at the burn unit have been in the service for only a short time, but they have received the personal attention of the top brass of the corps.
Last Friday, Gen. Robert H. Barrow, Marine Corps commandant, arrived at the hospital, donned a surgical gown and mask and visited his men.
On Monday, Sgt. Maj. Henry Crawford, the corps's ranking non-commissiioned officer, came by.
What was the word from him?
"He said, 'Hi" and 'get well quick,'" Spotts said.