The Donora ‘Death Fog’ of 1948

Donora, Pennsylvania Death Fog of 1948
Donora, Pennsylvania Death Fog of 1948

In 1948, a little-remembered environmental disaster occurred in the U.S. that shocked the entire world.  It may sound like something from a Steven King horror novel, but it’s the real thing. It began innocently enough.

On Tuesday, October 26th, 1948 the people of Donora, Pennsylvania woke to a blanket of smoke and fog filling their streets.  Fog was common there when cold Allegheny Mountain air hit the warm water from the Monongahela River that ran around the town.  Plus the town’s steel mill and zinc works factories ran three solid shifts. They belched out endless pillars of smoke, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

People went off to work that morning, kids off to school.  But the smog on the morning of Oct. 26th turned out to be different somehow. As the day wore on, the fog didn’t lift, as it usually did when the sun rose.  All the streetlights were still blazing at Noon!  Plus the smog became slowly thicker as the day progressed. Townsfolk began to gag and cough, tasting the pollution in their mouths.

The smog burned your throat, eyes and nose, but we thought it was just another day in Donora.’

Donora Death Fog survivor

Donora is a small U.S. town, about 27 miles south of Pittsburgh. It sits on a tight, horseshoe bend in the Monongahela River, in a deep mountain valley surrounded by steep Appalachian hillsides.  It was also the home of the US Steel Zinc Works AND American Steel & Wire Mill. A combined 30 smoke stacks lining the riverfront like a steampunk forest. The 2 factories employed most of the men in town and laborers.  Everyone else in one way or another supported, or profited off, the 2 large mills.

Folks in Pennsylvania and Ohio steel towns were used to smog. This was 3 years after World War II and the GIs were home and back to work in the mills and factories.  But memories of the Great Depression still lingered, and smog, for better or worse, meant prosperity and jobs. Smog meant men were working, bills were being paid, and families were fed. Sure it was a daily nuisance. It stunted the growth of trees in the valley, mothers washed their curtains as frequently as towels, and it caused hacking coughs amongst the workers. But, that was the price you paid for a part of the American Dream, right?

The Donora smog continued to worsen as the week went one, getting thicker and thicker and thicker for 5 straight days. Most residents hid in their homes except to go to work. It darkening the valley like an industrial solar eclipse. That didn’t stop the Halloween parade on Friday though, when little kids in costumes walked the streets like real specters, coughing and hacking in the foggy gloom.  Or the high school football game on Saturday, when no passes were thrown because receivers couldn’t see the ball in the air!

The smog was so thick the fans could barely see the football players on the field!

What the town didn’t know was that a layer of cold autumn air had trapped the 2 mills’ toxic soup of carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and zinc/lead dust in their mountain valley.  It was a rare Atmospheric Inversion that stopped the air from circulating out of the town.  The dangerous combination of toxic smoke and weather would yield deadly effects. The thickening, poisonous air began causing uncontrollable hacking coughs and asthma-like symptoms.

Donora’s 8 family doctors rushed from house to house and case to case. They ordered those having trouble breathing to abandon the town and head in any direction. This became harder and harder as driving visibility was reduced to just a few feet, even with headlights on. Firefighters carried O2 tanks through the dark streets to help children and elderly citizens get from place to place. The police was deluged with desperate phone calls for oxygen masks.

The ambulances could only creep through the smog at 5 mph, with one paramedic walking in front to check if the road was clear of stuck cards, shouting back to the driver.  Driving soon became out of the question.  Firefighters were forced to abandon attempts to help their suffering citizens when they were unable to navigate their fire trucks IN MIDDAY!

“The smog was so bad I couldn’t see my own two feet!”

Donora Death Fog survivor

The mayor and town leaders begged the mills’ owners to shut down … but they refused! It would cost too much money to halt production. The first deaths began to occur four days in on Friday. The doctors had made the small Donora Hotel an emergency clinic because the small local hospital couldn’t handle all the sick, coughing and gasping patients.

By Saturday, the 3 funeral homes quickly had more corpses than they could handle. The Community Center basement became a spare morgue when the undertakers were overwhelmed. Towns people listening to the local radio station were shocked to learn the toxic smog had now turned lethal!  20 of their fellow Donorans had died!  And half the town was getting sicker.

On Sunday morning October 30th, the mills’ owners finally ceased operation, arguably because most of their workers wereout sick and the mills were half empty. The next day, on Halloween no less, wind and rain finally came and the smog finally began to dissipate, but not before leaving many Donorians with permanent lung damage.

Twenty-six townspeople would die in all.

All the dead had been 50 or over, some with heart or lung problems. 7,000 people had become violently ill, half the town’s population. While expressing sympathy for the victims, the mill owners disclaimed responsibility!  After all, they couldn’t control the weather, could they?

Over the next months, state and federal investigators descended on small Donora. They set up air monitoring sites and medical clinics in the valley.  US Steel and American Wire insisted the weather was to blame, certainly not the mills that had been operating for decades. The 2 influential and powerful companies made sure the official report exonerated the plants. Most residents were outraged when investigators failed to blame the mills.  Much like the nearby Johnstown, PA Flood victims, lawsuits were filed and later settled, but without naming blame.

‘It was murder! The owners of US Steel should have gone to jail.’

Donora Death Fog survivor

Humans were not the only victims – all of the crops in the surrounding valley withered as well as many backyard gardens.  Family pets would suffer the same fate as their owners. It became the worst air pollution disaster in US history and let the public know that smog was more than just a nuisance, it could kill!

Donora, PA - US Steel Zinc Works, 1948
Donora, PA – US Steel Zinc Works, 1948

The 2 mills reopened the very next week. But the “Donora Death Fog,” was in all the national newspapers and made air pollution a new national concern. The next year, President Harry Truman called for the 1st national Air Pollution Conference, citing Donora, PA by name. A similar, larger disaster occurred in London, England in 1952, called The Great Smog killing thousands. The US Steel Zinc Works closed in 1957, the American Steel and Wire Mill a few years later.  Other industries came to town over the years and Donora became a classic Rust Belt, working class community.

President Richard Nixon created the US Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, leading to The Clean Air Act.  Nonetheless, air pollution in industrial Pennsylvania cities and towns like Pittsburgh remained a problem for decades more.  Add the mills of Illinois, Ohio and Indiana and air pollution precipitated down upon the northeastern states as Acid Rain, killing lake and river fish populations all the way to New England.

Once the mills closed, the population of Donora dwindled to less than 6,000, with over one-third retirees. Some residents blame the government regulators for destroying jobs in their town, though arguably saving their family’s lives. The Donora Death Fog is the pivotal moment leading to the slow adoption of air quality regulations in the US years later.  Today, it almost sounds like a 1950’s science fiction movie.   But if you have never heard of Donora, PA you owe the victims and their families a debt of gratitude.  The Donora dead gave their lives, so many others would later live.

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LOST IN HISTORY Blog/Podcast about key forgotten history still relevant in today's world. Paul Andrews also has 5 historical adventure novels, all available on Amazon.

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