October 25, 1998

Lynne Glover

In house after house, Bill Schempp placed the mask over the faces of neighbors who were wheezing and gasping for air. He'd give them a little oxygen from the tank, then stop.

They'd start to wheeze again, and the firefighter would give them a bit more. But eventually, it was time to move to the next home in Donora, Washington County, to relieve, at least temporarily, the labored breathing of those worst affected by the air pollution that enveloped the town.

"I'm dying, and you're taking my air from me," Schempp, now 81, recalls being told.

Fifty years ago this week, a killer smog created by unchecked industrial emissions and stagnant air conditions filled the then-thriving mill town in the Mon Valley.

Newspapers reported that 21 people died over two days as a direct result of the smog, and more than a third of the town's population, or about 6,000 people, became ill or were hospitalized.

Victims of the Donora smog will be remembered during a simple memorial service on Wednesday. A representative of the federal Environmental Protection Agency will be the guest speaker - significant because of the tragedy's role in shaping today's environmental laws.

"The Donora incident was the dot on the exclamation point on the cry for cleaner air," EPA spokeswoman Ruth Podems said.

Patients with breathing troubles during those last days of October 1948 spilled from examining rooms into corridors at the nearby Monongahela Memorial and Charleroi-Monessen hospitals. The town's community center became an emergency medical station - and temporary morgue.

"This was a great tragedy," said Thomas Ferrall, a spokesman for the U.S. Steel Group of USX Corp. "Environmental control technology that became the norm in our industry didn't exist in 1948."

Emissions from a U.S. Steel Group subsidiary, American Steel & Wire Co., coupled with weather conditions, are the widely accepted causes for the deadly smog. Toxic emissions from the American Steel & Wire's Zinc Works mixed with fog that hung low in the town and lingered because of a common, though unusually long, temperature inversion.

Typically inversions, in which the ground temperature is warmer than the air above, create fogs and last only a few hours. But because there was virtually no wind in the valley, the heavily polluted air remained trapped in the fog for about five days.

"You can't imagine what it was like. You couldn't see your hand in front of your face," said Schempp. The thick, white smoke with its faint odor was like "something out of this world," he said.

During the height of the emergency, the Donora Fire Department was besieged with frantic calls. Soon, help arrived from other communities. The Pitcairn Fire Department arrived with an ambulance, and the McKeesport and Rosedale fire departments loaned inhalators.

Schempp remembers the horrendous time he and a fellow firefighter had attempting to navigate their way on foot through the smoggy Donora streets as they toted 135-pound tanks of oxygen.

For five days, the smog inversion sat over Donora. Newspapers reported that 21 people died over two days.

"It took us at least one hour to go to someone's home only five blocks away," he said. "We had to feel our way along the fence."

With a limited supply, the firefighters could only spare each victim a small amount of oxygen.

Donora is legendary in the annals of environmental history. The incident drew national attention through radio broadcasts at the time, and is discussed today in elementary school science classes and featured in college textbooks.


For all of its infamy, the tragedy that has been described as the "Hiroshima of air pollution" provided the first real piece of scientific evidence in this country that pollution kills.

"It was the first time that anyone looked closely at air pollution and its health effects," said Podems. "It was the first time there was any organized effort to document what happens when air pollutants go above a certain level."

"The Donora smog played a significant role in sparking the environmental movement," said Ken Wolensky, a historian with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in Harrisburg. It marked the beginning of government stepping in to examine just what industrial pollution might be doing to people.

At the time, Donora residents didn't know what was happening. "It was something out of this world," Schempp said.

And so life in Donora went on.

The Friday night Halloween parade through town went on as planned. Saturday afternoon's high school football game was played. And the four-mile long mill, which employed 6,500 workers at its peak, continued making zinc, spewing out sulfurous fumes, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and heavy metal dusts.

The football game played that weekend may have been one of the greatest games never seen. Although the field was near the top of the hill, where the smog wasn't quite as dense, spectators still could barely see the field. But they could hear the referees' whistles blow.

And they could also hear the announcer call for the children of Bernardo DiSanza to return home immediately. "I found out later that their dad died," recalled Mayor John Lignelli, 77, who attended the game.

Houseplants and family pets died. And thousands of people suffered severe abdominal cramps, splitting headaches, nausea and vomiting. Strong men and women with no previous health problems were struck down, doctors said, their respiratory systems paralyzed. Elderly people who already had respiratory ailments found themselves choking and coughing up blood.

Autopsy reports of many of those who died indicated "acute changes in the lungs." The victims' ages ranged from 52 to 85.

The town burgess ultimately declared a state of emergency in the town of nearly 14,000. Doctors advised those with respiratory problems to leave town. By Saturday night, however, the heavily congested roads and poor visibility made evacuation impossible.

Those unable to leave were ordered to stay indoors and to make sure their windows and doors remained closed.

And it wasn't until 6 a.m. Sunday that the zinc works was shut down as a precautionary measure.

"The tragic thing was that the residents didn't know what was happening," said Chuck Carson, vice president of environmental affairs for U.S. Steel. "It was only after the fact that they realized 20 people died. Only then did they say, `Boy, we really had a problem.'"

Pollution was a way of life back then.

Schempp recalled steamboats in the river would regularly blow their horns in order to alert other river traffic of their presence. He said it wasn't unusual for boats to collide because there was so much smoke they couldn't see each other.

"We lived in it. We accepted it," Schempp said of the pollution. He worked in the mill for more than three years and recalls having black ankles when he came home from work. "It was our normal way of life."

But that would change.

"It was on account of what happened here that opened the eyes of the federal government that they needed to do something. Donora should take credit for that," said Lignelli.


Donora, in fact, can take only part of the credit for an air pollution research bill that was passed in 1955. This was the first federal legislation that mandated the U.S. Public Health Service to conduct research on air pollution effects. It was passed after a 1952 pollution incident in London where more than 1,000 people died.

Donora also helped set the stage for the most ambitious federal environmental law, the Clean Air Act of 1970, which required states to meet and enforce new federal clean-air standards that limited emissions of sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, particulate matter and other toxins.

Because of the strict government regulations now in place, Lignelli said he would welcome industry back to Donora, particularly the new Sun Coke Co. plant that many residents in the Hazelwood section of Pittsburgh are currently fighting.

"With all the regulations they have now, you probably would not get any smog. For as strict as they are with the Clean Air Act and with all the modern technology that we have today, the air would not bother you at all," said Lignelli.

He added that the Hazelwood residents who point to Donora as a reason to not build the coke plant "are so off base it is pathetic."

For the record, American Steel & Wire Co. formally denied responsibility for the Donora smog, saying it was an "act of God." Still, the company settled hundreds of claims filed by residents of Donora and its downwind neighbor, Webster.

According to U.S. Steel's Ferrall, the out-of-court settlements ranged from $1,000 to $30,000. The 1948 dollar is worth about $7 today, he noted. Many people believe that such an environmental disaster could not happen today.

Harry Klodowski, an environmental attorney who runs a Pittsburgh law firm, said it would be "pretty damn unlikely" that another Donora-like event could occur.

"Factories are not like that anymore," he said. "Nobody has the permission to discharge the kinds of things they were discharging in the 1940s. The regulatory system in place does seem to be working to prevent that kind of thing."

During the Donora smog, emissions of sulfur dioxide were estimated to be somewhere around 1,500 to 5,500 micrograms per cubic meter, said Carson. This is much higher, he noted, than the 80 micrograms per cubic meter average currently mandated by the Clean Air Act.

"We know a lot more now," said Carson. "We have a much sounder scientific basis and much better control systems."

The shutdown of the Donora Zinc Works in 1957, followed by the closure of the entire Steel & Wire Co. operation a decade later, was a devastating blow to the Donora economy.

The population today has dwindled to about 5,000, including some lifelong residents who know nothing about the Donora Smog of 1948. "Never heard of it," said one man strolling through the town.