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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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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