October 27, 1998

CNN Interactive

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Fifty years ago, fog trapped acid fumes over a mill town. Within a day, some elderly people were gasping for breath. A day later, nauseated patients crowded two hospitals. By the third day, people in Donora were dying.

Before the acrid smog dissolved, it would kill 17 people -- the first known American deaths from air pollution.

The tragedy in the Monongahela River town of Donora in October 1948 would become a national symbol, cited again and again as proof that pollution can kill.

This town of 7,500 plans a service Wednesday to memorialize the victims who gave life to the clean air movement. "The Donora event, coupled with some similar disasters, had a cumulative effect that led ultimately to the Clean Air Act," Frank O'Donnell, executive director of the Clean Air Trust in Washington, D.C., said Monday.

Smoke and fumes from the American Steel and Wire Co. zinc works and iron works that dominated Donora's landscape were a fact of life in the town 28 miles south of Pittsburgh "The people who worked there said, 'That smoke puts bread on my table," said Norma Ross Todd, a longtime Donora resident and a curator for its historical society.

The entire Pittsburgh area was foggy that week in 1948, and a weather phenomenon called an inversion -- in which a cold air mass traps warm air near the ground -- set in.

On Friday, Oct. 28, Donorans realized that their fog was poisoned: Sulfur dioxide emissions from the zinc works had mixed with the fog to form a sulfuric acid mist.

By the next day, patients with breathing problems, headaches, abdominal pains or nausea had crowded into hospitals. The basement room at the community center had become a temporary morgue.

On Sunday, town officials had shut down the city, even halting ambulances because the drivers could not see. Volunteer firefighter Bill Schempp recalls carrying a 130-pound tank of oxygen from house to house, helping a dozen people with respiratory problems.

At each address, he found someone struggling for air. "They were wheezing a little, and others just weren't able to get their breath," said Schempp, now 81. He gave each one a couple of whiffs of oxygen and then had to go to the next address. Schempp never learned how many survived.

The community's phone lines were so jammed that Sunday that people trying to check on their relatives in Donora could not get through. By 6 p.m., the zinc works were closed. Rain helped wash the air, and the plant reopened Monday.

In addition to the 17 people killed, at least two more people died later from its effects. About 6,000 people -- half Donora's population -- were temporarily sickened.

U.S. Steel eventually paid out-of-court settlements ranging from $1,000 to $30,000, said Thomas Ferrall, U.S. Steel Group spokesman. Within 20 years, both mills were closed.

The U.S. Public Health Service investigated, placing air monitors with revolving arms to collect air samples all over town, and blamed the zinc works.

The Donora tragedy and other smog problems provoked Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine to hold congressional hearings that led to the Clean Air Act in 1970.

"Throughout all the efforts, Donora was always quoted as evidence that this is truly a problem," said O'Donnell.