a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Thanking poor Donora for blue skies

DONORA, Pa. –While studying her lines for a play about Donora in 1948 when steel was booming, Destiney Gilmer was surprised to learn that times were not always tough in the struggling Pennsylvania borough.

“It’s hard to believe it was prosperous,” said Gilmer, a cast member in Ringgold High School’s new one-act play about the deadly Donora smog that killed at least 20 people about this time 60 years ago.

The high school brought the somber show to Donora Tuesday and Wednesday as residents there commemorate the disaster that became the catalyst for America’s clean air laws.

High school drama coach Leslie Rutherford wrote “We Know Blue: a 21st Century Thank You” at the request of the Donora Historical Society.

“There is pride that clean air started here,” Rutherford said after her play was well received in the Donora Municipal Building.

But the students “couldn’t wrap their minds around” the fact that 8,000 people were sickened by the smog when there are just 5,000 folks living in the borough today, she said. “They were amazed.”

The students took turns telling an abbreviated story about the smog and its legacy. They sang musical numbers from the era, including “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree.” They also pretended to tune into a corny live NBC radio broadcast of Fibber McGee and Molly”“ that entertained America about the time the smog settled over Donora.

There were 21 cast members, reflective of the unofficial number of people who died that Halloween weekend. Toward the end of the half-hour play, the students each lit a candle while announcing the victims’ names.

“It’s kind of hard to believe that that happened here,” student Leah Kramer said.

“And then it all fell apart,” her classmate, Brittany Recker, added.

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