In 1948, a little-remembered environmental disaster shocked the world. No, this isn’t a Steven King story, but the real thing.
It began innocently enough. On Tuesday, October 26th, the people of Donora, Pennsylvania woke to a blanket of smoke and fog filling their streets. Fog was common in town when cold mountain air hit the warm river. Plus the town’s steel mill and zinc works ran three shifts. They belched out endless pillars of smoke, 24 hours a day.
But the smog of Oct. 26th was different. As the day wore on, the fog didn’t lift, as it usually did. Streetlights were still blazing at Noon. Plus the smog became slowly thicker as the day progressed, until townsfolk began to taste the pollution in their mouths.
‘The smog burned your throat, eyes and nose, but we thought it was just another day in Donora.’
Donora‘s a small US town, about 27 miles south of Pittsburgh. It sits on a tight, horseshoe bend in the Monongahela River, in a deep valley surrounded by steep hillsides. It was also the home of a US Steel Zinc Works and American Steel & Wire Mill, with a combined 30 smoke stacks lining the river. The 2 factories employed most of the men in town.
Folks in steel towns were used to smog. This was 3 years after WWII and the GIs were home. But memories of the Great Depression still lingered and smog meant prosperity. Smog meant men were working, bills were being paid, and families were fed. Sure it was a nuisance. It stunted the growth of valley trees, mothers washed curtains as frequently as towels, and it caused hacking coughs amongst the workers … but that was the price you paid for the American dream.
The Donora Smog continued to worsen, getting thicker and thicker for 5 straight days, darkening the valley like an eclipse. That didn’t stop the Halloween parade Friday, when kids in costumes walked the streets like real specters, coughing in the gloom. Or the high school football game Saturday, when no passes were thrown because receivers couldn’t see the ball.
The smog was so thick you could barely see the football players on the field!
What the town didn’t know was that a layer of cold autumn air had trapped the 2 mills’ toxic soup of carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and zinc/lead dust in their valley. It was a rare atmospheric inversion that stopped the air from circulating out of the town. The combination of toxic smoke and weather would yield deadly effects. The thickening, poisonous air began causing hacking coughs and asthma-like symptoms.
The town’s 8 doctors rushed from case to case. They ordered those having trouble breathing to abandon the town. This became harder and harder as driving visibility was reduced to a few feet. Firefighters carried O2 tanks through the dark streets to help children and elderly citizens. They were deluged with desperate requests for oxygen.
The ambulances could only creep through the smog, with one paramedic walking in front to check the road was clear. Driving soon became out of the question. Firefighters were forced to abandon attempts to help their suffering citizens when they were unable to navigate their own town IN MIDDAY!
‘The smog was so bad, I couldn’t see my feet!’
Town leaders begged the mills’ owners to shut down … but they refused. The first deaths began to occur Friday. The small Donora Hotel had become an emergency clinic because the local hospitals couldn’t handle all the sick, coughing and gasping for breath.
By Saturday, the 3 funeral homes quickly had more corpses than they could handle. The Community Center basement became a morgue when the undertakers were overwhelmed. Towns people listening to the radio were shocked to learn the toxic smog had turned lethal! 20 of their fellow Donorans had died! And half the town was getting sick.
On Sunday morning Oct 30th, the mills’ owners finally ceased operation, arguably because most of their workers were sick. The next day on Halloween, wind and rain came and the smog finally began to dissipate, but not before leaving many with permanent lung damage.
Twenty-six townspeople would die in all.
The dead had all been 50 or over, some with heart or lung problems. 7,000 people had become violently ill, half the town’s population. While expressing sympathy for the victims, the owners disclaimed responsibility.
Over the next months, state and federal investigators descended on Donora. They set up air monitoring sites and medical clinics. US Steel and American Wire insisted the weather was to blame, certainly not the mills that had been operating for decades. The 2 powerful companies made sure the official report exonerated the plants. Most residents were outraged and investigators blamed the mills. Lawsuits were filed and later settled, but without naming blame.
‘It was murder! The owners of US Steel should have gone to jail.’
Humans were not the only victims – all of the crops in the valley perished as well as many family pets and backyard gardens. It became the worst air pollution disaster in US history and let the public know that pollution was more than just a nuisance, it could kill!
The 2 mills reopened the next week. But the “Donora Death Fog,” made air pollution a national concern. The next year, President Harry Truman called for the 1st national air pollution conference, citing Donora. The zinc works closed in 1957, the steel mill a few years later.
Richard Nixon created the US Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, leading to The Clean Air Act. Nonetheless, air pollution in Pennsylvania remained a problem for decades. It precipitated down upon the state as Acid Rain, killing lake and river fish populations.
The population of Donora has dwindled to less than 6,000, over one-third retirees. Some residents blame the government regulators for destroying jobs in their town, though arguably saving their family’s lives. The Donora Death Fog is arguably the pivotal moment leading to the adoption of air quality regulations in the US. If you have never heard of Donora, you owe it a debt of gratitude. The Donora dead gave their lives so others would later live.