Donora Residents Remember the Deadliest Air Pollution Disaster

Sixty years ago, the nation's worst air pollution disaster occurred in the Monongahela River valley town of Donora. What was described as a killer fog blanketed this small company town in 1948. When it was over, the local funeral home ran out of caskets. In this story from our archives, The Allegheny Front's Jennifer Szweda Jordan visited the town to talk with survivors.

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PETRO: You could, depending on the atmospheric conditions, taste the smoke.
GLADYS SCHEMPP: Walking down the street with the tears rolling down my face, because it burned, you know, it was full of sulfur.
DAVIS: When people would come to the town, they often would ask, ìWhat is that smell?î
JORDAN: This was how longtime residents of Donora, Pennsylvania, described the air that filled their streets in the 1940s. Most in this friendly town did not complain. They accepted it as a necessary part of industry. In this tiny community, a 40-acre zinc plant stretched across the river. Coke ovens burned constantly. Coal stoves heated the thousands of homes.
Devra Davis, who grew up in Donora, is the author of When Smoke Ran Like Water: Tales of Environmental Deception and the Battle Against Pollution.
DAVIS: Donora, at that time burned as much coal in the mills as did Pittsburgh, a city that was ten times bigger.
JORDAN: Late in October 1948, a cold air mass created a lid on the bowl of fumes in this Monongahela Valley town for five days, until rain cleared the air. Twenty people died and six-thousand fell ill. Over the next month, another 50 would die. In all, forty-two percent of the townsí citizens were sickened or worse.
At the beginning of the disaster, life went on as usual. Children marched in a Halloween parade and football players performed at a well-attended game. Attorney Paul Petro describes what it was like as he sorts through yellowed newspaper accounts of the disaster.
PETRO: Every fall, especially along the river, you had fog, you know like in the morning, real difficult to drive. Well, if you can just picture that type of situation all day long. Thatís what it was like that weekend.
JORDAN: Fireman Bill Schempp remembers how the situation worsened.
SCHEMPP: The missus and I, my wife Gladys, had been to a party. And as we came home, we went down into this fog area, into the town. And the town was pretty well consumed, if you want to say it that way, in fog and smog. We managed to just barely make it home.
JORDAN: Schemppís home is a museum of fire-related antiques. (Nat. Sound: Walking down steps) Bill heads to the basement with his dog Henry to show off the 18-inch oxygen tank he hauled up steep hills to help the afflicted.
SCHEMPP: I had rigged these up. (Ok, Henry) And I had to carry this around with me. And this is what I rigged up. I put this on and this is the face piece. Now see, Iím gonna put it down ëcause itís too heavy.
JORDAN: How much does it weigh?
SCHEMPP: Oh, this must weigh at least 30 pounds.
JORDAN: Bill explains how he made his way through the streets that night.
SCHEMPP: To get approximately five blocks took me at least an hour, an hour and a half, to feel my way, because I had to go along fences, curblines and so on. It was like a wall of snow.
JORDAN: There were too many coughing, dying residents for Bill Schempp to visit. After he administered oxygen at one home, family members blamed him for leaving their loved ones to die.
SCHEMPP: As I was leaving, they would take a bad attitude towards my leaving. They wanted to put a knife in my back for not staying with them to help that person.
JORDAN: Schempp keeps the old oxygen tank because heís often asked to described it by reporters who make the annual trek to this town south of Pittsburgh. The disaster is historically significant because it helped usher in federal air quality measures. President Harry Truman cited Donora as an example of the need for a national air pollution conference he convened in 1950. It became a precursor to the first Clean Air Act.
Some blame the legislation for the lack of jobs here, and the many homes that are boarded up in what used to be a vibrant little downtown.
U-S Steelsí Donora Zinc Works and American Steel and Wire plants were major town boosters. They provided thousands of dollars in jobs, parks, and tax revenue. Paul Petro is among those who have mixed feelings about what transpired after the disaster.
PETRO: In 1963, this mill started to (claps) close. People deserve to breathe clean air, we all know that. But I always felt the government should help the industry.
JORDAN: Despite the federal legislation, Devra Davis says there are places where a similar threat exists today.
DAVIS: In the rapidly developing world, they are using old technologies now, that could produce emissions that would be of great concern. If these kinds of activities continue in those communities, they ultimately will come back to haunt us.
JORDAN: Some in Donora say the town continues to be haunted reputation as the site of pollution disaster. They wish the subject would go away, like the fogs that drift in and out of the valley. Perhaps the most hopeful legacy of was that when children went out on their annual Halloween search for treats, the air was clear and the only complaints were about the candied apples.
Nat. Sound: Neighborhood kids and adults trick or treating: Iím not eating that. Give it to grandma ñ look at that.
JORDAN: For The Allegheny Front, Iím Jennifer Szweda Jordan.