a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Panic, condemnation and redemption follow the deadly 1948 Donora smog

Pollution from unsightly mills didn't stop Donora, Pa., from hosting elaborate downtown parades in the early-to-mid-1900s. (Donora Historical Society photo)

By Scott Beveridge

DONORA, Pa. – Nothing seemed out of the ordinary in smoggy Donora, Pa., the week before deadly air pollution would kill 19 people there in one day in late October 1948, and lead to more deaths in the coming days.

As Halloween approached Donora police Chief Pykosh issued an angry rant in the local newspaper after pranksters had scattered coal furnace ashes about town.

"Fun is fun, but when it becomes a downright nuisance, then it's time to get tough," Pykosh stated in The Herald-American before announcing the borough's Halloween parade would be postponed until Nov. 1 if the weather left it unfit for the march.

That Friday, Oct. 29, the newspaper appeared to have made no mention of the putrid air that had already begun to settle over the town along the Monongahela River Valley about 30 miles south of Pittsburgh. The Halloween parade went off as planned that weekend, even though fewer participants showed up because of the smoggy weather.

The dead were lining up by the end of the day Saturday, and two locals hospitals were overflowing with patients complaining about pneumonia or heart-related symptoms, the newspaper finally reported two days later.

On Monday, the newspaper announced borough council had called an emergency meeting the previous evening to call for an immediate survey of the problem by the U.S. Public Heath Service.

A panic had set in that Sunday, when a light rain had begun to clear the air. However, another fog began to roll in while the borough council meeting was underway, prompting fears it "would cause additional suffering," the newspaper article indicated.

Many people were already blaming the deadly air on the U.S. Steel zinc plant hugging the Mon River.

Charles Stacey, president of the local board of health, opened the council meeting with a strong indictment on the town's zinc and steel mills.

Stacey complained about reports the company had not modernized its mills since 1915, and he announced "it should go out of business" if the allegations were true.

Meanwhile local physician William Rongaus appeared at the meeting showing signs of fatigue and stress, and he "bluntly described the deaths of the 19 persons as murder."

"In my opinion," Dr. Rongaus declared. "I believe something should be done about smoke coming from the mills. The fumes are killers. They are silent killers."

Pittsburgh's health director, I. Hope Alexander, was by then warning of a pneumonia epidemic in Donora as a result of the smog.

"Right now the air in Donora has a heavy concentration of sulphuric acid plus some of the volatile compounds of zinc," Alexander stated in a Nov. 1, 1948, newspaper report by the United Press.

"The smoke from the zinc works at Donora is of a very toxic variety," he further warned borough residents.

The deadly smog story, though, had by the following Wednesday dropped off the local newspaper's front page above the fold - even though it had already made national headlines. Elsewhere the newspaper reported funeral rites would be held that day for three smog victims. Meanwhile, it also reported a North Carolina resort had offered an all-expense paid escape from Donora to fresh Southern air to 50 Donora residents.

Ironically, it only took the U.S. Health Department just five days from that deadly Saturday to declare the mills hadn't contributed to tragedy.

"There was no evidence found that will incriminate any one particular plant as being the source of the atmospheric contaminant over the weekend," Dr. Duncan W. Holaday of the health service's industrial hygiene division announced at a news conference in the borough on Nov. 4, 1948.

Holaday said there was no one in town that weekend to sample the air  when the smog was at its worst, and he also declared the air safe to breath after the resumption of mill production, the Donora newspaper reported.

Of course, we know more than five decades later that either Holaday had been misled or he was participating in a cover-up in the days after what became the nation's deadliest pollution event.

A 2008 review of federal court archives by the Observer-Reporter newspaper in Washington, Pa., uncovered evidence suggesting the company had taken air samples that weekend. However, the results of the internal testing of that air were never made public.

(This story is part of an continuing series of essays, "The Gamble on Donora Steel," which can be located along the right sidebar of this blog.)


Gina said...

I look at that photo and wonder what those white dresses looked like by the end of the parade. I remember as a child living in Lock 4, you could clean your car, porch, house, etc every day and the next day, it would be covered in a layer of soot.

It was obviously not as bad as the tragedy in Donora, but it's hard not to remember that and realize that if that crap was all over everything, it was most likely in your lungs, too.

Scott Beveridge said...

My mom has often said her slip went from white to gray just by walking across the Donora-Webster Bridge when the mills were running.