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Health Director Quits Over Papal Mass Site Problems

August 5, 1987

SAN ANTONIO, Texas (AP) _ Hundreds of people could die from heat exhaustion and lack of water at an outdoor papal Mass in September because organizers aren’t prepared, says the county’s health director, who resigned in protest.

″Unless proper attention is paid to the need for limiting the size of the crowd and providing an adequate water supply, I’m concerned we may have hundreds of people dying and thousands of casualties,″ said Dr. Katharine Rathbun, director of the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District.

Ms. Rathbun had planned to resign Sept. 16 to move to Denver, but said Monday she is now leaving the end of this week because of concern about what she says are poor health precautions.

She said a 144-acre site is inadequate to accommodate a crowd estimated at more than 500,000 at the Sept. 13 Mass by Pope John Paul II. She said the crowd should be limited to 125,000 and urged children and elderly people not to attend for their own safety.

″It’s possible that they would hold this and no one would get hurt and it’s possible that there would be hundreds of deaths and thousands of casualties,″ Ms. Rathbun said in an interview Tuesday. ″What troubles me is the way to find out is not to ignore the problems and to put everybody out there and see how many people die.″

Temperatures in San Antonio in September are in the upper 80s and the month also is normally the wettest, Roger Hoekstra, a specialist with the National Weather Service, said Tuesday.

City Manager Lou Fox said Ms. Rathbun was attempting to follow too closely provisions in the state Mass Gatherings Act.

″Kate has locked in on this. She has locked out a lot of possibilities and hard-nosed the negotiations with the church,″ Fox said Tuesday. ″I observed her in many of these sessions and I felt she was getting frustrated with it and felt she wanted to absolve herself from it.″

Under the act, certain health requirements must be met and a permit obtained by the county judge if more than 5,000 people attend an event lasting 12 hours or more.

But the Mass will not come under the act because church officials estimate the crowd will be in and out of the Mass site within 12 hours. The Mass is expected to last two hours.

The Rev. David Garcia, chairman of the Mass site preparation committee, said the Archdiocese of San Antonio and local officials are making every effort to prepare for the crowd, including placing water outlets around the site.

″What we are preparing right now will be very adequate to meet the needs of the people,″ Garcia said. ″We are doing the job in a very responsible way and we think they are good plans.″

Garcia said the transportation system for getting people to the site will help limit the number of people attending. Logistically, he said, it would be very difficult for more than 500,000 people to reach the location.

Garcia and Fox said young children, the elderly and those with medical problems may want to stay away from the Mass, while others may want to take their own water and food.

Jody Kniejski, papal visit liaison for the county, cited another problem. So far only 3,000 portable toilets have been located, she said, but 10,000 are needed for the crowd.

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