a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A hero rises from the smog

Donora fireman Bill Schempp was a gentleman who defined volunteerism. This is his obituary from the pages of the Observer-Reporter:

Bill Schempp emerged as a small-town hero, going door-to-door as a volunteer fireman with oxygen in Donora, Pa., during the nation’s deadliest air pollution disaster.
This week Schempp, who died Sunday, December 14, 2008, at age 91, is being remembered as a father figure to young firefighters whom he trained over the years.
“He always welcomed us at any time to his home and loved to talk to us about the olden times,” said Casey Perrotta, 27, a borough fireman and local code enforcer.
Schempp was just 31 when he answered a call from his fire chief, Charles Cumberland, to take an 18-inch oxygen tank to offer fresh air to people who were gasping for their breaths during the Donora smog of 1948.
It took him nearly an hour to walk up Donora’s steep Sixth Street with the tank in one arm and using the other to feel his way through the thick smog linked to stagnant air and pollution from the local steel and zinc mills.
The nation’s first clean air laws were spawned from the event that claimed at least 20 lives over that Halloween weekend.
And through the years, reporters from all corners of the United States have called on Schempp to retell his story about the disaster.
On the famous mission, he offered an oxygen mask to the sick to take just two or three breaths before he had to move on. The calls just kept mounting. At some houses, people clung to him or shouted to keep him from leaving.
“There wasn’t a damned thing you could do about it,” Schempp told a reporter with Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service for a story on the smog’s 50th anniversary.
“There were too many calls to help everyone,” said Schempp’s friend, Paul Brown of Donora. “I worked in that mill. I know how bad it was, so I know what he went through.”
Schempp went on to work for 23 years as Donora postmaster. He was known to tinker with his antique red fire engine that bore his name, and often drove it through local parades.
He granted his final interview last summer to a producer of The Weather Channel’s docudrama, “Killer Smog,” that premiered in November.
Donora firemen gathered last night beside his coffin in James A. Rabe Funeral Home in Donora for a firefighters memorial service.
“He is a hometown hero,” said Perrotta, who portrayed Schempp as a young man in the Weather Channel show.
Schempp is survived by his wife of 67 years, Gladys Balmer Schempp, and a daughter, Annie Schempp of Donora. He will be buried Thursday in Monongahela Cemetery.

(Caption: Donora fireman Bill Schempp about a decade ago in the passenger seat of his antique fire engine.)

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