In a darkened auditorium, pictures of burn victims flash before 40 nurses getting a crash course in "burn management" as their hospital prepares for soldiers wounded in the Middle East.

The lecture accompanying the slides is clinically grim."There is no great mystery with chemical burns because they are primarily resuscitated in the same way as thermal (burns)," says Frank Costello, a critical-care-nursing instructor at The New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center.

"What you want to do with the chemical . . . is to wash off the skin so that the corrosive activity of the chemical is not continued," he says. "Protect yourself, cover yourself, your eyes, your face, so that if there is any splash, none of this comes through on you."

So far, U.S. casualties in the Persian Gulf War have been relatively light. But the number of wounded is expected to increase if there is a large ground war and if Iraqi President Saddam Hussein follows through on his threats to use chemical weapons.

New York-Cornell, which has the largest burn center in the United States, has agreed to treat up to 200 soldiers from the Persian Gulf, said William Greene, its associate director. The medical center also is ready to handle victims of terrorism in the New York metropolitan area, he said.

Over the past three weeks, some 300 nurses have attended Costello's lecture on "Mass Casualty and Burn Management" as part of the hospital's disaster preparedness plan. His talk is aimed at nurses who have little or no experience with burn victims and who would treat them - under the guidance of trained colleagues - if the hospital gets an influx of wounded soldiers.

Greene said New York-Cornell usually has from 50 to 60 burn patients.

"I think all of us, as professional nurses, need to realize that there is a good possibility that we will have to be directly involved in this type of care," said Barbara Piekos, a senior staff nurse who attended Costello's lecture,

"Chemical burns are a pretty frightening thing to think about, because not only are you taking care of patients that have been burned with chemicals but (there is) the possibility that you could be exposed to the chemical, as well," she said.

After emergency treatment in field hospitals in the Middle East, most wounded soldiers would be taken to Department of Defense hospitals. Once the military's 16,000 beds were filled, they would be sent to Veterans Affairs hospitals. However, since the VA centers are unable to handle a large number of burn cases, up to 200 patients would be transferred to New York-Cornell, Greene said.

Regular patients would be moved to other floors, discharged or transferred to other hospitals to make room for the war casualties, he said.