A Darkness in Donora

When smog killed 20 people in a Pennsylvania mill town in 1948, the clean air movement got its start

Donora, Pennsylvania
Wikimedia Commons

"It was so bad," Jerry Campa, a Donora, Pennsylvania, restaurateur recalls, "that I'd accidentally step off the curb and turn my ankle because I couldn't see my feet." The acrid, yellowish gray blanket that began to smother the Monongahela River mill town in late October 1948 was more suffocating than anything any Donoran had ever seen—or inhaled—in the past. Before a rainstorm washed the ugly soup away five days later, 20 people had died or would soon succumb and nearly 6,000 of the 14,000 population had been sickened.

"Before Donora," declares Marcia Spink, associate director for air programs for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Region III office in Philadelphia, "people thought of smog as a nuisance. It made your shirts dirty. The Donora tragedy was a wake-up call. People realized smog could kill."

When I was growing up in western Pennsylvania, grime and dirty air were facts of life. We walked home for lunch with streetlights still blazing; my mother washed the living-room curtains almost every week. But memories of the Great Depression were still vivid and smog meant prosperity.

When, as a cub reporter in Pittsburgh, I phoned in a police report that gasping, coughing Donorans were swamping the local hospitals, the rewrite man shrugged it off. "People are always coughing in Donora," he said. This was different. Before the evening ended, I was phoning every Donora official I could locate, and the rewrite man was beating out a story about a public health and environmental disaster.

"Frightening, scary," recalls white-haired Eileen Loftus. She was a nurse at the American Steel & Wire Company, whose blast furnaces and zinc works stretched along the Monongahela and employed most of the town, and one of the 70- and 80-year-olds who shared recollections one sunshiny morning half a century later. You couldn't see the Halloween parade, they remembered—"just shadows moving through the gloom," one woman said. A football game against rival Monongahela was almost invisible, with teams running the ball because they couldn't see it in the air.

"About 4 o'clock Friday," Loftus recalled, "a worker staggered in, gasping. I had him lie down and gave him oxygen. Then another man came in, and another." By early evening, every bed and examining table was occupied by a wheezing and often panicky worker.

Bill Schempp, now a vigorous, wiry, 82-year-old, was the fire department's oxygen specialist. He remembers receiving a call early Sunday morning from the fire station, which was being deluged with desperate requests for breathing assistance. Schempp picked up three addresses and started off up Sixth Street.

To retrace Schempp's path through the smog, even on a clear, bright day, is to appreciate his heroic effort. Sixth Street rises at a breathtakingly steep angle. Driving was out of the question; even the town's ambulance could only creep through the smog with a pedestrian ahead to mark the way. Carrying an 18-inch tank of oxygen, an inhalation mask and hoses, he groped blindly uphill. "I knew that street like the back of my hand," he recalls. "But it took me an hour to cover what I could normally do in ten minutes."

On arrival, Schempp applied the mask over the nose and mouth of a middle-aged, asthmatic worker and administered a one-minute infusion of pure oxygen. After five minutes, Schempp gave a second round, then a third. Then, to conserve his life-giving supply for others, he left, to the anguished protests of the family. "They said, ‘You're taking his life away!'"

The first death occurred Friday. By Saturday the three funeral homes quickly had more corpses than they could handle. The town's eight physicians hurried from case to case, able to spend only a few minutes at each bedside. Pharmacists dispensed medications by the handful. The town set up a temporary morgue.

Yet the steel mill and the zinc works continued to operate, stacks steadily spewing more fumes into the loaded atmosphere. On Sunday morning, on orders from the parent company, U.S. Steel, the zinc works closed down. While expressing sympathy for the victims, the superintendent disclaimed responsibility, declaring that the zinc works had been safely using the same procedures since 1915.

Thanks to everyone from my once-skeptical rewrite man to national newscasters, Donora now received so much attention that telephone lines were swamped. Over the next months, state and federal investigators interviewed every third household, set up air-quality monitoring sites, checked medical records and vital statistics, and brought in meteorological and biological research teams. In 1949, the U.S. Public Health Service issued a 173-page report, "Air Pollution in Donora, Pa.: Epidemiology of the Unusual Smog Episode of October 1948."

The report counted 5,910 people affected by the smog but failed to name a definite culprit. Donora's topography and a freakish weather pattern were primarily blamed. The town sits on a horseshoe bend in the Monongahela, with steep hills at its back and even steeper ones across the river. Fumes were normally swept out by the prevailing westerly winds. In October 1948, a layer of cold air hung over the valley, trapping the warmer, fume-laden air beneath, a phenomenon called a temperature inversion.

The report satisfied few. Critics noted that the permissible emission levels were for healthy young workers in the plants, not older or ill persons in the community; the dead had all been age 52 or over, most with asthma or heart or lung problems. Absolving the zinc works particularly outraged many; you didn't need science to identify the culprit, a local newspaper declared, "just a pair of reasonably good eyes." Lawsuits (later settled without assessing blame) were filed against American Steel & Wire; citizens' groups grew up to demand stiffer smog regulation.

In 1950, President Harry Truman convened the first national air pollution conference, citing Donora as an example of the need. By present standards, its recommendations were tame, mostly calling for more research, but the precedent of a federal role had been set. In 1963, Congress passed the first Clean Air Act.

The skies are clear over Donora now. Gilmore Cemetery, once so devoid of vegetation that heavy rains often exposed caskets, is again green. The zinc plant closed in 1957, the steel mill a few years later. But the population has dwindled to 5,900, one-third over age 65. Industrial employment is only 1,100, down from 5,000 in the mill's heyday. Some folks still bitterly blame the air-quality movement for destroying the town.

Justin Shawley represents another view. This 18-year-old University of Pittsburgh freshman persuaded the state to erect a marker memorializing the Donora Smog. "It's wrong to try to ignore this moment," Shawley told me passionately. "That's obliterating the memory of those who died." Or as Marcie Spink says, "People who never heard of Donora owe this town a debt of gratitude"

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