20 DIED. THE GOVERNMENT TOOK HEED.
IN 1948, A KILLER FOG SPURRED AIR CLEANUP

October 28, 1998

By
Jeff Gammage
Philadelphia Inquirer

 

DONORA, Pa. -- No one paid much mind to the dense gray fog that settled upon the valley that Friday evening 50 years ago, the people here long accustomed to the occasional gassy cloud that spewed from the local steel plant.

The children's Halloween parade went on as scheduled. So did the high school football game on Saturday, though by then the smog was so thick that fans in the grandstands couldn't see the players on the field.

By Saturday night, 11 people were dead, choked to death by the noxious cloud. Nine more died in the ensuing hours. By Monday, nearly 7,000 people -- half the town's population -- were ill at home or in hospitals, sickened by a lethal mix of sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and metal dust.

Yet that four-day catastrophe in the fall of 1948 did something more than kill and injure. It gave birth to America's clean-air movement and forever vanished the notion that air pollution only dirtied the sky.

Tonight, 50 years after the incident known as "The Donora Smog," environmental officials, government leaders and everyday townspeople will gather at a hillside church here to honor the victims and the cleanup campaign spawned by their deaths.

"It was really a turning point," said Ruth Podems, spokeswoman for the Environmental Protection Agency in Philadelphia. "The Donora tragedy was really the first time that public officials recognized the direct link between air pollution and public health, and it was the first time they mobilized to do anything about it."

To people here, that long-ago weekend was a horror movie turned real, their town beset by a clinging, killing fog that dropped dogs and cats in their tracks and wilted flowers and houseplants. The community center was turned into a temporary morgue, and the halls of Monongahela Memorial and Charleroi-Monessen Hospitals overflowed with the sick.

Back then, there was no central ambulance service to rush help to the injured, no CNN to warn people to flee. Instead, the phone lines jammed, and heavy traffic, confusion and poor visibility thwarted evacuation efforts.

"There wasn't a damn thing you could do about it," said Bill Schempp, 81, a volunteer fireman who toted tanks of oxygen to the stricken. "We had stagnant, noxious air, and it wasn't moving."

Afterward, federal and state health agencies launched extensive inquiries the first organized effort to document the dangers of air pollution, according to the EPA. The hard lessons learned here helped produce a federal landmark clean-air act in 1955.

"It was their deaths that awakened the federal government," Mayor John Lignelli said.

Today, Donora is a struggling former steel town in the mid-Monongahela Valley, home to a Texaco station, a Family Dollar store, and not much else, best known as the birthplace of St. Louis Cardinals great Stan Musial. The downtown holds rows of empty storefronts; the streets are nearly deserted at noon.

Thousands of people left when the mill jobs disappeared -- today the population has sunk to 5,900, from the 14,000 who lived here in 1948.

Back then, steel mills and coke plants lined the Monongahela River north to Pittsburgh, 30 miles away. The biggest here was the Donora Zinc Works, a subsidiary of U.S. Steel, a four-mile-long smelting plant that employed 6,500 at its peak.

Local people figured the sporadic smelly fog that drifted from the mill was the price they paid for an abundance of good jobs. "It was our everyday life, and we just lived with it," Schempp said.

But the weekend that began on Oct. 29, 1948, was different.

Harry Loftus, 78, recalled how he stuck his head out of his car window, trying to see through the fog as he drove home that Friday night. He finally gave up and stayed at a friend's house.

The next day, John Lignelli was sitting in the high school grandstand, trying to watch the Donora team battle rival Monongahela High in the homecoming game. The fog was too thick to see the game. Lignelli could only listen, trying to follow the action through the whistles of the referees.

"It was scary, to be honest with you," said Lignelli, 77. "In those days, nobody would tell you anything when you turned to the steel mills. They would lead you to believe it wasn't coming from them."

No one knew that the emissions from the zinc works -- along with pollutants from coke plants, factories and even private, coal-burning homes -- had become trapped in the narrow river valley by a thermal inversion. Simply put, a high layer of warm air was pressing the toxins to the ground.

"It may sound dramatic or exaggerated, but you could barely see," said Schempp, who returned from a trip on Saturday night to find the town cloaked in haze.

Schempp noticed a light in the community-center basement, and thought it odd that someone was there so late. Only later did he learn the building had been commandeered as a morgue. Sunday morning, Schempp and other volunteer firefighters reported to the station, where they began answering call after call for oxygen.

He and another man grabbed two cylinders, tied handkerchiefs across their faces, and stepped outside into the cloud, trying to feel their way across town. It took 45 minutes to go five blocks. The firefighters didn't have enough oxygen for everyone, so they gave the injured three or four breaths and then moved on to the next house.

"They . . . resented that, because once we left, the person would go right back into that condition," Schempp said. "But there wasn't anything we could do about it. We had to help those other people."

Thousands were falling sick with crushing headaches, stomach cramps and vomiting. Some coughed up blood. Meanwhile, the zinc works churned along -- the plant wasn't ordered shut until Sunday. That night, a drizzly rain began to fall, slowly dispersing the fog.

Several days passed before the scope of the tragedy was known, and even then it didn't dominate the news. The Donora Herald-American found front-page space for the polls on the Dewey-Truman presidential race, and the Pittsburgh Press gave the smog deaths equal billing with a prison breakout.

Those who died ranged in age from 52 to 85, and all of them had suffered from respiratory ailments before the cloud formed. None of the victims' families still live here, local officials said.

Tonight, for the first time since the disaster, sponsors say, the dead will be publicly hailed during a memorial Mass at Our Lady of the Valley Church. Marcia Spink, a ranking air-quality official from the EPA's Philadelphia office, is scheduled to speak about the disaster during a ceremony to be attended by numerous state and local authorities.

For this town, set in a horseshoe bend of the Monongahela River, the tragedy was in many ways the beginning of the end. The zinc works reopened but shut for good in 1957, the first in a series of mill closures that decimated the valley economy. For years, no one wanted to hear about "The Donora Smog," thinking it a black mark on the community.

"A lot of people blame it for the mill moving out," said Justin Shawley, 17, a high school senior who worked to have a historical marker about the smog placed here in 1995. "People just sort of put it in the back of their minds all these years, tried to forget about it."

But for him, Shawley said, the smog is part of his heritage, a debacle that spawned a great national good. Sometimes he stares at the site of the old zinc works and the mountainside beyond, a landscape given to shrouding autumn mists.

"Some mornings," Shawley said, "you'll notice the fog's a little thicker."