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Cleaner air is legacy left by Donora's killer 1948 smog

Thursday, October 29, 1998

By David Templeton, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Until October 1948, smoke belching from industrial plants in Donora and elsewhere was considered little more than a daily nuisance. Yes, it turned yards and hillsides barren. For sure, it sometimes made driving difficult. And, certainly, homeowners often had to repaint their houses to counteract the corrosive smoke.

But considering that U.S. Steel Corp.'s Donora Zinc Works and its American Steel &
  This is what Donora looked like at noon on Oct. 29, 1948, as a deadly smog created by a temperature inversion and industrial plant emissions enveloped the town.

Wire plant employed thousands, Mon Valley residents were willing to live immersed in the billowing yellow smoke.

"It's like today, with pollution from cars," said Bill Schempp, an 81-year-old resident of the Washington County town. "That's the way it was here. It was a normal way of life."

Until this day 50 years ago, when thick smog created from a temperature inversion and factory smoke blotted out Donora. Over several days, it killed 20 people and sickened 6,000 in one of America's greatest environmental disasters.

Blinding smog opened people's eyes to the mortal dangers of air pollution. It gave rise to local, regional, state and national laws to reduce and control factory smoke and culminated with the nation's Clean Air Act of 1970.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the killer smog, Donora residents and local, state and federal officials held a service yesterday at Our Lady of the Valley Catholic Church in Donora to remember those who died and acknowledge how their sacrifice brought improvements to the air we now breathe.

Marcia Spink, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's associate director for air programs in Region III based in Philadelphia, gave the keynote address on "the debt of gratitude that the people of the United States owe Donora and the event that led to the federal Clean Air Act of 1970.

"It is definitely tied to the ability of this country to wake up and realize that air pollution isn't just a nuisance but something that makes things so dirty that it can kill people," she said.

Near the end of October 1948, a temperature inversion put a lid on the Mon Valley, trapping smoke spewing from zinc mill and steel mill smokestacks. It settled like dishwater in Donora and Webster, situated across the Mon River in Westmoreland County.

In 1948, the hillside in Gilmore Cemetery is bare of vegetation and badly eroded, conditions blamed on the emissions of the Donora Zinc Works at bottom of hill. 

Smog laden with sulfur dioxide from the zinc works was something Donora residents had become used to. As it thickened, residents went about their normal routines. On Oct. 29, the smog hid players from the crowd at a high school football game, and later, it became too thick to drive. That evening, people walking outside couldn't see their hands in front of their faces.

Still, few had any sense of the danger encircling them.

Doctors recommended that people with breathing problems leave town, but driving was prohibited because of the smog. Evacuation became impossible. As elderly residents began dying, town officials unable to summon help opened a makeshift morgue.

Still, the zinc works continued operating day and night, sending more smoke into Donora. At 6 a.m. Sunday, facing growing problems, U.S. Steel finally shut down the plant. By then it was too late to prevent disaster. Twenty people were dead, 6,000 were sickened. And the world was watching.

Lost in the haze

The Donora Zinc Works and the American Steel & Wire Co. plant, both operated by U.S. Steel Corp. and situated side-by-side along the Monongahela River bank, had long histories of pumping smoke into the skies above the small town 37 miles south of Pittsburgh.

"The Death-Dealing Smog over Donora, Pennsylvania: Industrial Air Pollution, Public Health Policy and the Politics of Expertise, 1948-1949," written by Lynn Page Snyder of the University of Pennsylvania, describes the disaster and its consequences.

Air pollution problems at the zinc works were recognized as early as 1918, when the plant owner paid legal claims for pollution that affected the health of nearby residents. In the 1920s, residents and farmers in nearby Webster filed suit against the company for killing crops and livestock. As a result, air sampling was conducted from 1929 through 1936. But until 1948, smoke was generally considered a hassle rather than a health threat.

Fifty years ago today, Donora Mayor John "Chummy" Lignelli was among those at the football game. The smog was growing worse, but no one registered any fear, he said.

"You couldn't identify the ballplayers. You could see movement on the field, but you didn't know who had the ball and what was going on. But we stayed and watched."

Sometimes, balls that were kicked or punted were lost in the haze, not to be found. Alice Capone, a Donora teacher at the time, was in charge of the concession stand at the game.

"I didn't realize the seriousness of it, but I thought it would affect the crowd at the football game," she said. "We had 50 pounds of hot dogs. I was worried about the hot dogs, the pop, buns and candy [if no one showed up.]"

Monongahela defeated Donora in the smog bowl. During the game, one family was summoned home because of an emergency. It turned out that the father had died from the pollution. By noon Saturday, 11 people already had succumbed to the smoke. But people still didn't realize the danger.

"I recall sitting outside the old borough building on a bench with the fire chief. A delivery truck from Pittsburgh comes by and they all had respirators on," Lignelli said. "We asked them why they were wearing respirators. They said because the air is bad. I said, 'We don't have a problem here.' "

Schempp, a longtime Donora fireman, and his wife, Gladys, were attending a party on the ridge about two miles from Donora that Saturday. When they returned that evening, the ridge road was almost enveloped in smog.

"It was like going into a sink hole," said Schempp.

As their car creeped home, the couple noticed dim lights glowing near their house. They later realized the lights marked the site of the makeshift morgue.

"The air was yellow and so full of sulfur," Mrs. Schempp said. "It burned my eyes so badly that I had tears. My eyes were burning like fire."

When fire bells rang that evening, Schempp and other firemen learned that they were to take oxygen to residents struggling to breathe. Schempp said he had to feel his way along buildings and fences, go up the steps of each house and strain to make out the house number. Going several blocks took 45 minutes.

"If you chewed hard enough, you could swallow it," he said. "It almost got to the point where it was claustrophobic, it was so dense and thick. You couldn't see a thing. You had to get right up to the door and guess where you were.

"It sounds dramatic, but without exaggeration, that's the way it was."

Finding the right address, Schempp could only give the struggling person a few shots of oxygen before departing to find the next address.

"It almost broke my heart to leave," he said. "It was almost a terrible experience because it meant that you had to walk out of a house where people needed help."

Eventually, doctors decided it was too dangerous for firemen to cart oxygen through the smog. Everyone went to their homes to wait for the air to clear.

The Schempps said they weren't overly concerned about the smog, until newspapers explained that 20 people were dead and thousands were sick.

"I remember the headline, 'Death Smog,' " Mrs. Schempp said.

'Get out of town'

For days, doctors including William Rongaus and his brother, Walter, worked around the clock to treat stricken citizens. Many families fled Donora when it was possible to leave but returned when they discovered heavy smog in Pittsburgh and elsewhere.

"I told them to get out of town," William Rongaus said in a 1995 interview. "People were dying while I was treating them. I called it murder from the mill. I was mad, but where was I going to go for help?"

The world's eyes and ears became focused on Donora's plight. Famed broadcaster Walter Winchell reported news about Donora on his show and described the impact of the killer smog.

In his lawsuit against American Steel & Wire for the death of his elderly wife, Suzanne, John Gnora described how his wife gasped and coughed for hours before she died.

"She was weak," he said. "That smoke was awful bad."

At 6 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 30, the Donora Zinc Works superintendent finally ordered the mill shut down because of the smog. Rain arrived later that day and rinsed the air of pollutants. The next day, the zinc works resumed production.

  Bill Schempp, left, and Donora Mayor John Lignelli stand at the historical marker recognizing the Donora Smog of l948. (Robert J. Pavuchak, Post-Gazette)

Soon after the smog dissipated, the state Department of Health, the United Steelworkers, Donora Borough Council and the U.S. Public Health Service launched investigations. It marked the first time that there was an organized effort to document health impacts of air pollution in the United States, Snyder noted in her paper.

Quoting the Monessen Daily Independent, she said the impact of air pollution from the zinc works was "something no scientific investigation is necessary to prove. All you need is a pair of reasonably good eyes."

The investigations prompted Public Health Service recommendations for a warning system tied to weather forecasts and air sampling. In 1955, the state passed the Clean Air Act, the first law to control air pollution, in direct response to Donora.

The zinc works closed in 1956. When the U.S. Clean Air Act was passed in 1970, the impact of smog on Donora was a key issue in congressional debates.

In 1995, Donora resident Justin Shawley, now 17, researched the Donora Smog and succeeded in having the state Historical and Museum Commission approve a historical marker that was placed at the Donora Public Library.

On Oct. 6, the state House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution, introduced by State Rep. Peter J. Daley, D-California, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Donora Smog.

"It is fitting that we, as a state, recognize this unfortunate occurrence and its victims," Daley said.

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