An unwelcome event that left 20 dead and about 6,000 ill catapulted Donora into the news in the last week of October 1948.
Early in the week, a combination of smoke and fog, trapped by an air inversion, blanketed the community. As the days passed and more pollutants went into the stagnant air, the smog got worse and visibility kept decreasing. Despite the poor visibility that hampered both motorists and pedestrians, many went about their usual routine. The Halloween parade was held as scheduled Friday night and the football game with Monongahela was played Saturday afternoon before a packed crowd at Legion Field despite the difficulty in viewing either.
However, the elderly and seriously ill began experiencing respiratory trouble, and the community’s physicians were flooded with calls from concerned families. As the physicians worked around the clock to treat the sick, they were assisted by nurses and other volunteers, including policemen and firemen who went door to door administering oxygen. Those who made the rounds reported on the difficulty of finding their way to the homes.
Drug stores remained open all night to fill prescriptions. Clergymen were called out to minister to the dying and their families. The Donora Board of Health met in an emergency session, and the American Red Cross and the American Legion and its Auxiliary set up an emergency station at the Community Center. Funeral directors offered their ambulances to carry the sick to the Community Center or the two area hospitals, Monongahela Memorial and Charleroi-Monessen.
Phone lines were flooded with calls from concerned families and friends from out of town as word of the disaster spread on radio and in the newspapers, and some people frightened by what was happening left town to stay with relatives and friends until the emergency was over.
On Sunday, the Donora Zinc Works shut down its smelters to eliminate as much smoke and industrial fumes as possible as agreed to by borough, public health and company officials. Rain also arrived and helped to disperse the smog. The skies cleared. The Zinc Works resumed operations on Monday.
In the months that followed, investigations were conducted by the state and federal government. Both traced the disaster to a number of sources, including smoke from Donora’s industrial plants. A million-dollar suit was filed against the operator of the Donora Zinc Works’ American Steel and Wire Company. The suit was settled out of court for about $250,000 in April of 1951. The firm, however, denied any responsibility for the disaster despite the government’s findings. It did install a weather station and other air pollution devices as precautionary measures.
Nine years after the smog, the Donora Zinc Works was closed, putting 900 men out of work. Ten years after that, U. S. Steel Corp. closed all its Donora facilities for a total loss of nearly 5,000 jobs.
The disaster that shocked the country touched off a nationwide campaign against air pollution. It provided the impetus for studies resulting in major federal clean air laws. It also began this country’s environmental movement by focusing the nation’s attention on the harmful and sometimes fatal side effects on life and the environment from air, and especially industrial, pollution. The enactment of the Clean Air Act and creation of the Environmental Protection Agency are a legacy of the Donora tragedy. Donora became synonymous with the fight for clean air.