Try to Imagine

Try to Imagine

Try to imagine, if you will, what it must have been like for volunteer fireman Bill Schempp and Assistant Fire Chief Russell Davis during those dark, smoggy, suffocating days and nights of late October 1948. Both men worked day and night to bring oxygen and other assistance to Donorans who had become sick from the smog.

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That Friday night, October 29, after watching the annual Halloween parade with his wife, Schempp received a call at home from Fire Chief John Volk that he needed to bring oxygen to ailing Donorans. Schempp threw on his heavy, brown turnout coat, clipped the stainless steel buckles closed, slid his feet into a pair of black rubber boots, and snugged his DFD helmet onto his head. He strapped on the oxygen tank he kept at home, the green one, labeled TO BE FILLED WITH COMPRESSED OXYGEN ONLY, and walked out the back door, onto Thompson Avenue, into the dark fog.

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Bill Schempp at a fire practice

Walking had become so difficult by then that he dropped to his hands and knees and crept through the heavy, burning fog, feeling his way from house to house. Once inside he gave oxygen to the people who needed it most. Chief Volk would radio Schempp new homes to visit, based on the calls he received at the station. Each visit lasted only a few minutes. Schempp would fit a thick rubber mask over the ailing person’s nose and mouth and turn the oxygen on for 10 or 15 seconds, delivering what he called a “shot of oxygen.” Sometimes he gave one or two shots, rarely three, over a period of five or ten minutes. Just as the person began to breathe more easily, Schempp would shut the oxygen off, remove the mask, and move to the next house, to the next person clamoring for help. There were so many people to help, he was afraid the oxygen in his tank would run out.

Assistant Fire Chief Russell Davis was also roaming Donora that night, handing out shots of oxygen. “I didn’t get to bed until Sunday,” Davis said. “This fog was so bad you couldn’t even get your car to idle. I’d take my foot off the accelerator, and—bango—the engine would stall. There just wasn’t any oxygen in the air. I don’t know how I kept breathing. I don’t know how anybody did.”

And so it was that Schempp and Davis, men who had fought fires and transported the sick and injured to local hospitals, men who had comforted those who had lost their home or loved ones, were forced to decide how much oxygen to give each of their neighbors desperate for air. They had to say over and over, No, I’m sorry. I have to go. They had to listen to critically ill people and their loved ones plead with them, begging for more oxygen, and then walk away, knowing they might never see those friends alive again.

Imagine the torment they must have felt, the guilt, the overwhelming sadness of being essentially helpless in an unfathomable tragedy that, in the end, claimed at least 19 lives over that weekend and hundreds, probably thousands, over the coming months and years.

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Unidentified victim being transported to an area hospital during the smog

The physicians of Donora didn’t fare much better. They, too, clamored throughout Donora, doing whatever they could to help their patients. Drs. William Rongaus, Edward Roth, Martin Hannigan, Sr, and Ralph Koehler, among others, all made house calls throughout town that weekend. They injected adrenalin into patients suffering from asthma and used whatever other medicines they carried until they, too, fell ill from the smog. Koehler had to stop visiting homes at 1:00 AM that Friday night, so sick from the fog was he. “I had to go home,” he said. “God knows I didn’t want to, but my heart gave out. I couldn’t go on any longer without some rest.” He was days away from his 49th birthday and would die from a heart attack less than ten years later.

How many victims those caring souls saved cannot be known with any certainty, but surely the number must run into the dozens, maybe hundreds. In the kind of noxious conditions Donorans found themselves that October, even momentary relief from a shot of oxygen or adrenaline might well have been enough to survive until Sunday, when rain came to break up the fog.

Imagine the pride that Schempp, Davis, Koehler, and the others must have felt when they realized that the vast majority of the people they aided had survived the weekend. They might never have bragged about it—and in fact I have found no evidence to suggest that any of them ever did—they surely felt the kind of deep, warm gratification that can come only from saving a life. They would have felt honored to have been there to help and grateful that their skills alleviated suffering at such a perilous time. Those are the kinds of feelings the men would have carried to their dying day.

Just imagine.

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Gone Was the Wind

Gone Was the Wind

Looking back on those dark, horridly smoggy days in Donora in 1948, one tends to think first of the smoke, the dirty, dusty, sooty smoke, with all of its toxins, pouring out of the smokestacks of the zinc, steel, and wire mills that dominated the valley back then. One tends not to think much or often of the other elements involved, those that, together, set up so perfectly the tragedy that befell the town. Among those elements was the wind, of which there was virtually none.

If even a slight breeze had strolled through the Donora valley that week the smoke would have broken up, giving residents some respite. But no, there was no breeze to be had, not in Donora, nor in Monessen to the south, nor in Monongahela to the north. There was, in fact, nary a breeze to be had throughout the entire Northeast that week.

The image below is part of a national weather map from September 29, 1948, a month before the Donora  tragedy. The black lines, marked here by orange arrows, indicate general wind speeds. The closer the lines, the greater the wind speed. On this day the wind was pretty much normal, with light breezes along the eastern U.S.

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Now look at this map from October 29, in the thick of the smog that killed so many in Donora and Webster. Note how far apart the lines are. Wind bands are almost non-existent, and in the Donora valley along the Monongahela, there was no wind whatsoever.

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With conditions like that, air in the valley stagnated, collecting pollutants and sickening thousands. That morning Ralph Koehler, one of Donora’s eight physicians, looked out his bathroom window over the rooftops below, toward the mills. A glint of light caught his eye as he watched a train plodding along the tracks. Normally smoke would have risen from the smokestacks into the air, but that day something odd happened. “The smoke was belching out,” said Koehler, “but it didn’t rise. I mean, it didn’t go up at all. It just spilled over the lip of the stack like a black liquid, like ink or oil, and rolled down to the ground and lay there. My God, it just lay there!”

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Map from 10/31/1948

The absence of wind at ground level prevented the natural upward movement of smoke not just from the train but also from the nearly dozen 200-foot-tall smokestacks of the various mills. It wasn’t for another two days, on Sunday — Halloween — that Donorans felt their first puffs of wind in six days. That Sunday a cold front (blue arrow, right) moved in from the west and brought with it a slight breeze, light showers toward midday, and then a steady rain later. Between the wind stirring the lifeless air and water droplets washing the soot away, the fog lifted and the air returned to what Donorans considered rather more normal.

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Who Died in Donora’s Deadly Smog?

Who Died in Donora’s Deadly Smog?
Edited 1/2/18

A granite slab lying flat on the ground marks the grave of Jeanie B. Kirkwood, a victim of the Donora smog of 1948. Everyone knew her as Jeanie, but her name was actually Jane. Jeanie was born in Wishaw, Scotland, about forty-five minutes southeast of Glasgow, to Alexander Rensick and Mary Mackie on November 11, 1880, just a few days after James A. Garfield won the U.S. presidential election. She arrived in this country in New York in 1911, moved to Donora, and worked as a practical nurse until her retirement.

Both Jeanie and one Ivan Ceh died at two o’clock on the morning of October 30, 1948, the worst day of the smog. Jeanie and Ivan were the first victims of the worst smog event in U.S. history, the smog that led the way to the nation’s first clean air act. Both individuals show up in pretty much everyone’s list of victims, as do Ida Orr, John Cunningham, Andrew Odelga, and Perry Stevens.

DHSListofVictimsPlaqueA bit of context. I’ve been immersed for the past few weeks in researching all the people usually listed as smog victims, and it has been interesting. Most newspaper accounts in late 1948 and early 1949 use 20 as the total number of victims from the smog, which began on Tuesday, October 26, and ended the following Sunday, October 31. Historians at the Donora Historical Society (DHS) have typically used the number 27 as the total count, based on a slightly longer time period for the event, a reasonable approach. I may end up, when this phase of my research is completed, with a longer time period as well, possibly even longer than the DHS timeline. For instance, I want to include Thomas Amos Short, who died from asthmatic bronchitis, a commonly listed cause of death from the smog, and whose death certificate specifically indicates “(Smog)” in the cause of death. (Below, right.)

thomasshortdeathcertsectionAll the lists I’ve seen, though, are slightly inaccurate. Now, developing any ancestral history can be difficult, to say the least. Inconsistent spellings of names can be an issue, especially in newspapers.The Daily Republican, a newspaper in Monongahela that ceased operations in 1970, listed Marcel Karska as a victim, but the name was actually Kraska, referring to a 66-year-old Donora resident who died at 11:45 AM on the 30th. The DHS list includes one George Weisdock, but his name was actually Hvizdak, often anglicized to Weisdack. Pretty much every list includes the name William Gardner. His actual name, however, was Cardner, with a C.

Then, too, the extent of information can leave much to be desired. It seems that not everyone received a death certificate in 1948, or, if they did, it was lost or never archived. Marriage applications, census data, immigration passenger lists, and so forth, are also often inaccurate or provide inconsistent information.

Donora residents in particular pose an issue, because so many of them were immigrants whose names Americans found difficult to pronounce and, thus, to spell. Census data are filled with erroneously spelled names, owing at least in part to an oral interview process of people with thick, foreign accents.

So it is with a fair degree of caution that I provide the following lists of victims and non-victims of the death fog. To the best of my knowledge the information here is accurate as of today, January 2, 2018.

NOTE: If you have information on any of these individuals, please reach out to me at atmcphee@gmail.com. I would be most appreciative.

Victims

  1. Ivan Ceh
  2. Barbara Chinchar
  3. Taylor Circle
  4. John C. Cunningham
  5. Bernardo Di Sanza
  6. Michael Dorincz
  7. William Gardner
  8. Susan Gnora
  9. Milton Elmer Hall
  10. Emma Hobbs
  11. Ignace Hollowiti
  12. Jane (Jeanie) L. Kirkwood
  13. Marcel Kraska
  14. Andrew Odelga
  15. Ida Orr (not Ore)
  16. Thomas Amos Short
  17. Perry Stevens
  18. Sawka Trubolis
  19. John West

Commonly and Inaccurately Listed as Victims

  • Clifford E. DeVore, who died on May 5, 1949, from terminal pneumonia
  • George Weisdack, whose actual last name was Hvizdak, who died December 22, 1948, from chronic myocarditis and nontuberculous lung abscesses
  • Mary Rozik, commonly listed as Mary Pozik, who died May 4, 1949, from hypostatic pneumonia, bronchiectasis, and cardiovascular disease, a catch-all used principally for arteriosclerosis and atherosclerosis, which often occur together

To Be Determined

  • Steve Faulchak
  • Ruth Jones
  • John Poklemba
  • Peter Stancovich
  • Alice Ward

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Even Cleaner Air Starts in Donora

Even Cleaner Air Starts in Donora

With the EPA undergoing extensive downsizing and the Trump administration wanting to open previously protected lands to oil and shale drilling, Donora continues to remind the nation of the need for clean air.

The recent opening of a natural gas fueling station near the site of the old steel mills in Donora provides yet another lesson for the nation. Nearly 69 years ago a weather condition called a temperature inversion trapped smoke pouring out of steel and zinc mills in Donora. The smoke contained pollutants and toxic gases and led to the deaths of 27 people during the event and hundreds more later.

harrytrumanheadshotWithin two years President Harry S. Truman would call the nation’s first technical conference on air pollution, citing the deaths in Donora as the final straw. He told the scientists gathered at the conference, “Air contaminants exact a heavy toil. They destroy growing crops, damage valuable property, and blight our cities and the countryside. In exceptional circumstances, such as those at Donora, Pa, in 1948, they even shorten human life. I trust that the recommendations made by this conference will aid in the shaping of a comprehensive plan for the study and control of atmospheric pollution.”

Those recommendations and other efforts led to the nation’s first clean air act in 1955, and for Donora, at least, clean air remains a priority. The Mid Mon Valley Transit Authority, which operates a 29-bus fleet, including eight that run on natural gas, is proud to have opened its compressed natural gas fueling station on the old mill site. “It’s ironic,” said the transit authority’s executive director Donna Weckoski, “that we’re on an old steel mill site that an one time caused the Donora smog 69 years ago. We’re bringing clean air to Donora.”

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Still Fighting for Clean Air Today

Still Fighting for Clean Air Today

As I continue to research the Donora smog tragedy of 1948, I am continually disgusted by the anti-environment rhetoric of and actions taken by the current administration. The President, as I write this, is expected to sign an executive order tomorrow that would roll back President Obama’s clean power plan to reduce carbon emissions and curb global warming.

whensmokeranlikewatercoverThe residents of Donora didn’t know much about smog in the 1940s. They didn’t know how deadly that rancid fog they breathed every day could be. To them, it was simply part of life. Devra Davis, an environmental epidemiologist and author of When Smoke Ran Like Water: Tales of Environmental Deception and the Battle Against Pollution, grew up in Donora. “Well, if you lived here it smelled just fine,” she writes. “People would come to the town, and they would say, ‘What’s that smell?’ And people who lived here would say, ‘What smell?’ And my grandpa would say, ‘Well, it smells like money.'”

Donorans feared for their jobs, so they quietly and, at the time quite reasonably, buried their head in the steel mill sand. It was just fog, they thought. What’s the big deal?

We now know how big a deal that fog was. We now know a number of things we didn’t know much about then:

  • Air pollution from factories, cars, trucks, wood-burning stoves, and the like cause heart and lung diseases and disorders.
  • Carbon dioxide and other pollutants break down Earth’s ozone layer and cause global warming.
  • Global warming is real, regardless of what the current administration might say. There is no debate about it among environmental scientists. None.

Scott Pruitt, the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency– the very agency that came about partly due to the Donora tragedy and its aftermath — has said he doesn’t believe that the release of carbon dioxide is responsible for global warming. “I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do,” he has said, “and there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact.”

No, Mr. Pruitt, you are wrong. Utterly and completely wrong.

I wonder how Ivan Ceh would feel about Mr. Pruitt’s comments and the current anti-environment agenda now in play in our nation’s capital. Mr. Ceh was the first victim of the Donora tragedy, succumbing at 1:30 in the morning on Saturday, the worst day of the smog.

Or how Ignace Hollowiti would feel. Ms. Hollowiti died sometime that Saturday morning before anyone could reach her with oxygen.

billschemppinfiretruckOr how firefighter Bill Schempp would feel. Mr. Schempp and fellow firefighter, Jim Glaros, worked around the clock, creeping from house to house in the black fog, to deliver oxygen to desperately ill residents.

I think they might feel betrayed. I think Mr. Ceh and Ms. Hollowiti might feel as if they had died in vain, and that Mr. Schempp’s and Mr. Glaros’ efforts weren’t as valiant as they certainly were.

I think they might feel as if the nation, which had been given such a tragic wake-up call, might be going back to sleep, going back to a time when the burning odor of polluted air was just a fact of life.

Stay awake, America. The people of Donora — and you — deserve it.

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Temperature Inversions and Deadly Smog

Temperature Inversions and Deadly Smog

Donora, Pennsylvania.

Meuse Valley, Belgium.

London, England.

Environmentalists will recognize those names as sites of deadly smog events in the mid-1900s. In Donora, in October 1948, 27 people died and hundreds became sick. In the Meuse Valley incident, back in 1930, 60 people died and thousands developed severe breathing problems. In London, just four years after Donora, a staggering 4,074 people died and tens of thousands of people became seriously ill.

Common to all three tragedies were two key elements. First, large factories in each area had been spewing enormous amounts of pollutants into the air, the most deadly being sulfur dioxide. And second, Mother Nature came calling in the form of something called a temperature inversion.

On most days the air is coolest higher in the atmosphere and warmest nearest the ground. Air isn’t a terribly good conductor of heat energy, so most of the sun’s energy warms Earth’s surface. Sometimes, though, air in higher elevations becomes warmer than air at the surface. That layer of warm air then traps the cooler air below, putting a kind of lid on the area. Temperature inversions happen with some regularity throughout the world and are particularly common in valleys. When moisture clings to the air during an inversion, you’ll see fog. Typically fog “burns off” during the morning, dissipating when surface air warms.

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Sometimes, though, fog lingers. Combine that with pollutants also being held down by the layer of warmer air above and you’ve got the makings of a tragedy. People begin breathing air with increasingly higher concentrations of sulfur dioxide, fluorine, and other toxins from factory fumes. When sulfur dioxide combines with water vapor, the result is sulfur trioxide, a dangerous toxin and the primary component of what we know today as acid rain. That chemical change also begins robbing the air of oxygen and increasing the potential that humans, farm animals, and pets will suffocate and die. The longer the inversion lasts, the more deadly the effects.

Donora’s inversion lasted six days before rain finally broke it up. In London and the Meuse Valley, the inversion lasted five days. In all cases the death toll mounted quickly. One undertaker in Donora, Rudolph Schwerha, talked not long after the event with journalist Berton Roueché of The New Yorker about his return home after an arduous 2-mile journey in dense, black fog to pick up a body.

My wife was standing at the door. Before she spoke, I knew what she would say. I thought, Oh, my God — another! I knew it by her face. And after that came another. Then another. There seemed to be no end. By 10 o’clock in the morning I had nine bodies waiting here. Then I heard that DeRienzo and Lawson, the other morticians, each had one. Eleven people dead! My driver and I kept looking at each other. What was happening? We didn’t know. I thought probably the fog was the reason. It had the smell of poison. But we didn’t know.

We know now, of course, and today our air is significantly cleaner than it was then. It’s not perfect, not by a long shot, but it is much improved from the last century. Let’s hope the air becomes even cleaner this century.

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Death in Donora

Death in Donora

The Monongahela River meanders from the West Virginia coal country to the middle of Pittsburgh, where it joins the Allegheny River to form the Ohio, a famous confluence called Three Rivers. Along the way the river curls around this hill and that, forming elbows and horseshoes that can make travel between towns along its banks long and lonely.

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Donora along the banks of the Monongahela

Along one of those curves, a large horseshoe about 30 miles due south of Pittsburgh, lies a a town called Donora, an old mill town that would largely be forgotten now were it not for an unusually long patch of unlucky weather that led to the deaths of hundreds of people and ultimately prompted the creation of the Clean Air Act. For it was at that horseshoe curve that at the turn of the 20th century a wealthy Indiana industrialist, William H. Donner, and his famous boss, Andrew W. Mellon, had decided to build a series of steel plants to supply the growing needs of a flowering America.

The plants employed thousands of Donora residents, supplied steel and wiring for hundreds of buildings, bridges, and highways, and spewed untold tons of respiratory pollutants and irritants into the air. In the fall of 1948 Mr. Donner’s plants gave grave notice to the town that all was not well.

donora-oct-30-960x450_cOn Tuesday October 26, the air over Donora became foggy from cool air being trapped beneath warmer air above in what meteorologists term a temperature inversion. Normally inversions last less than a day, but this one lasted a devastating five days. Within two days the fog had turned into a stinging, yellowish-gray shroud so thick that many people couldn’t drive, couldn’t even walk without stumbling. “It was so bad,” said one resident, “that I’d accidentally step off the curb and turn my ankle because I couldn’t see my feet.”

On the worst day, Saturday the 30th, two brave volunteer firefighters, Bill Schempp and Jim Glaros, worked their way around town, each feeling his way from house to house to deliver oxygen to residents with respiratory problems. Each visit lasted only a few minutes and happened the same way. The firefighter placed a mask on someone struggling to breathe and turned the oxygen on for just a few seconds, what they called a “shot of oxygen.” Just as the person began to breathe more easily, the firefighter then moved to the next house. The residents needed continuous oxygen but there simply weren’t enough oxygen tanks to go around. “These people were just desperate for air,” said historian Brian Charlton, curator of the Donora Smog Museum and active member of the Donora Historical Society.

So it was that two firefighters, men who had lived and worked with the people of Donora for years, who had fought fires, transported the sick and injured to local hospitals, and plucked frightened cats from raging storm drains, had to decide how much oxygen to give each resident. They had to say over and over, No, I’m sorry, as they shut off the oxygen and removed the mask. They had to listen to those desperately ill people plead with them, begging for their life, and then these volunteers had to walk away knowing they might never see their friends alive again.

epa-logo_edited-1All told about 20 people would die over that six-day period, at least 50 more the following month, and hundreds more over the following years. The event spurred an investigation by the Division of Industrial Hygiene, then part of the U.S. Department of Public Health and now part of the Environmental Protection Agency. After numerous states, including Pennsylvania, enacted their own clean air acts, the Government decided that clean air should be a national priority and in 1955 passed the first national air pollution law, initially called the Air Pollution Control Act of 1955 (public law 84–159), later renamed the Clean Air Act.

Today Donora residents maintain a sense of pride about the tragic events of that dark October 68 years ago. In a 2009 interview with NPR, long-time Donora resident Don Pavelko said, “We here in Donora say this episode was the beginning of the environmental movement. These folks gave their lives so we could have clean air.”

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