Could Donora Happen Again? Here in the US?

Could Donora Happen Again? Here in the US?

The American Lung Association (ALA) recently released a report on air pollution throughout the United States, and despite Pennsylvania’s history in dealing with air pollution — starting in Donora, of course — there remain areas in the state still showing up on the ALA’s Most [Air] Polluted list. The Pittsburgh-New Castle-Weirton area ranks eighth, in fact, in annual particle pollution out of 187 metropolitan areas and tenth in 24-hour particle pollution.

Ugh.

pittsburghareapollutionmapCertainly there have been strides made in the nation’s ability to combat air pollution. The greater Pittsburgh area, which once served basically as “Air Pollution Central” due to the many steel plants there, has seen continued progress (right) for many years, as have most cities throughout the U.S. We need to remain fully committed to this path to attain truly clean air.

Unfortunately the current administration seems bent on doing whatever it can to undo the progress the nation has made. From redefining the definition of soot to rolling back dozens of environmental rules and regulations to literally ignoring pollution science, the EPA is regressing and endangering the health of millions of people, not to mention the health of our planet.

So, could Donora happen again? Here?

Absolutely, and probably sooner rather than later.

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Do You Know Any of These Donora Smog Victims?

Do You Know Any of These Donora Smog Victims?

I need help. I’m currently working on a book about the Donora smog event of 1948, and I want very much to present the most accurate list of the smog victims ever published. Four people are sometimes listed as having perished in smog, but for many reasons finding definitive information on them has proven extremely difficult. I’ve listed below key information I’ve been able to find so far on each person. Might you or someone you know be able to provide any insight into any of them?

  1. Steve Faulchak
    I haven’t been able to find much of anything on anyone named Faulchak having anything to do with Donora. I believe the spelling of the last name is inaccurate, but even when I try numerous alternatives I come up empty. If anyone knows who this might have been, please do let me know.
  2. Ruth Jones
    ruthfjonesgravestoneI have found a variety of Ruth Joneses who lived in or around Donora in the 1940s. For instance, there was a Ruth Jones who was born in February 1921, died January 11, 1949, and is buried in Monongahela Cemetery. That might be the one I’m looking for, but I’ve also found a Ruth F. Jones from West Eagle, PA, who was born possibly March 13, 1902, or possibly sometime in 1905. She died April 25, 1949, and is buried in West Newton Cemetery. If you have information on either of these people, or other Ruth Joneses from the area who might have been a smog victim, please let me know.
  3. John Poklemba
    I’m close on this one. A Johan Poklemba was born in May 1891 in Austria-Hungary, arrived in the US in 1910, registered for the draft as John Poklemba, had brown hair and green eyes, lived in Donora, and might have died in January 1981. However, there was also a John Albert Poklemba who was born June 1, 1907, in Austria, who worked at the Donora wire mill, lived in Donora, was married to Barbara Homa Polkemba, died at Charleroi-Monessen Hospital on May 24, 1949, and is buried at St. Dominic Cemetery in Donora. I suspect that John Albert is the Poklemba referred to in some accounts, but I can’t be sure. Might you be able to confirm?
  4. Alice Ward
    As you might imagine, there have been many Alice Wards in Pennsylvania, several in Western PA. The only Alice Ward who seems to fit the Donora smog scenario, however, is someone born September 1, 1879, in Wales, with the apparent maiden name of Catherine Dyson. She was married to Thomas Jones, died at Charleroi-Monessen Hospital on March 26, 1949, and is buried in Monongahela Cemetery. If you can provide more information on this Alice Ward or any other who might have been connected to the smog, please let me know.

I much appreciate any help anyone can provide to shore up a complete, accurate list of Donora smog victims.

Please email me at atmcphee@gmail.com or leave a comment below.

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The Life and Death of a Smog Victim

The Life and Death of a Smog Victim

Susan Gnora, known by most as Susie, got up that morning and ironed. What she ironed is unknown, though most likely she ironed her husband’s white work shirts. Perhaps she ironed shirts most mornings, like other Donora wives whose husbands worked at one of the mills along the Monongahela River. That particular morning, Friday, October 29, 1948, was extremely foggy. Looking back we recognize the 29th as the fourth day of what we now call the Donora Death Fog, but at the time it was just another foggy day in Donora.

Susan was having trouble breathing that morning, but she kept ironing nonetheless. She also had a headache that wouldn’t go away. She had never had a health problem before, aside from a twisted ankle when she was young, and she had no history of asthma or other lung disease. Yet on this foggy day a woman who had survived the births of 14 children struggled for breath. Her family gathered at her home throughout the day. Susan’s husband John worked all day at a coal mine in Monessen and didn’t get home until about five o’clock. He found his wife painfully short of breath. She told him, “I no feel good.”

Neither Susan nor John spoke English well. John couldn’t read nor write, and in all likelihood Susan couldn’t either. John depended on his energetic wife for everything, from fixing his lunch everyday to using his every-two-week paycheck to manage the family’s finances. She paid all the bills, and when one of her children needed cash, she gave them whatever the couple could afford.

Coal Burning Power PlantThroughout the day Friday Susan had found herself so weak that she couldn’t complete even the simplest tasks. Her alarming weakness stemmed partly from the lack of oxygen in the air and partly from the dangerous effects of pollutants she had been breathing. The air in Donora that week had become increasingly thick with noxious gases, including carbon monoxide, ozone, and sulfur dioxide, all menacing gases in high concentrations.pulmonarygasexchange

The air also contained tiny particles, or nanoparticles, of such metals as zinc, lead, and cadmium. Those nanoparticles had been blown into the air from the steel and zinc mills along the river, particles that joined the coal dust already in Susan’s home from the family’s coal-fired Heatrola. The coal dust, plus the various types of nanoparticles in the Donora air, were breathed in not just by Susan but by everyone else who entered the house or who lived in Donora. The nanoparticles found their way into the deepest parts of the lungs and then into the tiny air sacs, or alveoli, there. Alveoli allow inhaled oxygen to pass into the bloodstream and carbon dioxide in the bloodstream to be exhaled.

When a person is at rest, about ten ounces of oxygen, and about the same amount of carbon dioxide, pass into and out of the bloodstream through the alveoli every minute. During exercise that amount can double. In Donora that horrible weekend, those ten ounces or so contained an unhealthy amount of noxious gases and harmful nanoparticles. On entering the lungs, all those pollutants caused an inflammation of the alveoli, which prevented the normal amount of oxygen from passing into the bloodstream and the normal amount of carbon dioxide from passing out through the lungs.

The lack of oxygen in the blood is most likely what caused Susan to become weak, and a buildup of carbon dioxide in the blood most likely prompted her headache. Other cells in the body also became inflamed and couldn’t perform their own particular functions as well as they should have. As a result Susan’s heart rate increased, trying to push more oxygen to the brain and other organs that needed it most. Her kidneys couldn’t get rid of as much waste as they should have, and so poisons began building up in her bloodstream. All of her body’s energy was being used to keep her heart, brain, and lungs working, and unless Susan was taken to a smog-free area right then, and given oxygen, she would die.

Her family had no idea how serious her condition was, though, until it was too late. Her son, George, said, “I didn’t realize it was that bad. I thought it was just one of those things that would blow over.”

Old glass syringe with brass hub needleSusan spent most of Friday night sitting on the edge of the bed, her head bent to her chest, her breathing become ever more labored. Speaking became too difficult, and sleep was out of the question. Her daughter, Elizabeth, called every Donora physician in the phone book, but they were all busy, out on house calls. She was finally able to reach Dr. William Rongaus, who arrived sometime between 9:30 PM and midnight. Rongaus drove to the Gnora home in extraordinarily thick, black fog. He gave Susan “a hypodermic,” probably epinephrine, to help open Susan’s airways and improve her breathing. He also left a few pills, most likely theophylline, a drug used to treat asthma and other breathing conditions. Susan didn’t want any of the pills, and the prescription Rongaus left behind was never filled.

When Rongaus left the Gnora home, Susan’s son-in-law, Rudolph Crafton, told him, “Any man who would drive a car [in that fog] would have to be a magician.” To which Rongaus replied, “I’ll manage somehow.”

Susan’s condition worsened overnight, and by 8:30 the following morning, Susan Gnora, a 62-year-old, five-foot, previously healthy, hard-working, Hungarian housewife “a little on the plump side,” with only a fourth-grade education, was dead. Susan became the ninth person to die from the smog. At least ten more souls would perish before rain and a bit of wind arrived that Sunday morning to clear away the fog and let the people of Donora breathe again.

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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.

WeatherMapSept29.jpg

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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