Death in Donora; Episode 1

The 1939 Donora High School yearbook baseball team photo features Hall of Famer Stan Musial (top row, second from left) and Buddy Griffey (front row, at left), the grandfather of Mariners great Ken Griffey Jr. (Photo provided by Wanda Guthrie)

By Wanda Guthrie

There was a time ….. =

I have felt the fog in my throat —

The misty hand of Death caress my face;

I have wrestled with a frightful foe

Who strangled me with wisps of gray fog-lace.

Now in my eyes since I have died.

The bleak, bare hills rise in stupid might

With scars of its slavery imbedded deep;

And the people still live — still live — in the poisonous night.

Folklorist Dan G. Hoffman reported collecting the ballad “Death in Donora” from area resident John P. Clark

Donora, Pennsylvania used to be a prosperous mill town. The 14,000 residents were hard working and nurtured very fine ball players. U.S. Steel’s Donora Zinc Works and its American Steel & Wire Plant employed many and the community prospered. WWII Veterans knew they would have a job when they returned and they built strong families. Hydrogen fluoride and sulfur dioxide emissions brought a little coughing but seemed to be a small price to pay.

Donora was also the the setting of one of the worst air pollution disasters in our nation’s history.

On the morning of October 27, 1948, fog started building up and continued building for five days. By the second day a temperature inversion occurred that would quickly become deadly. This type of inversion creates a situation where warmer air aloft traps pollution in a layer of colder air near the surface. The poisonous air, mixed with dense low fog, formed a thin, yellowish, acrid smog that hung over the town. The already toxic mixture of hydrogen fluoride and sulfur dioxide, and all other industrial chemicals including fluorine were not able to dissolve in the atmosphere. The land and air were covered in a disaster of Biblical proportions; affliction of air pollution of “sulfur and salt” … brimstone.

The smog knew no boundaries and the photos of the time show the smog blowing through other small towns in the Mon Valley, including McKeesport, Monessen, and Charleroi. The immediate effects were respiratory distress; many of the illnesses and deaths were attributed to asthma, but as the smog continued 20 people died and about one third to one half of the town’s population were sickened. Another 50 people died within a month after the incident.

It was not until early in the morning of October 31 that the operators of the plants agreed to temporarily cease operations. On the same day rain began to fall, dispersing the smog, and the plants immediately resumed operations.

Later that year, Dr. Clarence A. Mills of the University of Cincinnati released a study showing that many more Donora residents could have been killed if the smog had lasted any longer.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of this sad event. Writing this article at this time in our nation’s history is difficult. The incident that affected so many, the exposure to large amounts of pollution, the fatalities, were cited many times during the activism that brought  about the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the beginning of the Environmental Protection Agency to enforce regulations to protect us from hazardous airborne contaminants. The storefront Donora Smog Museum opened in 2008 with a slogan “Clean Air Started Here”. There are now about 4,000 people living in Donora.


Future issues will explore the Donora tragedy further.

APRIL: Death in Donora Episode 2 – Where did the time go…

MAY: Death in Donora Episode 3 – What I would give for some time….

JUNE: Death in Donora Episode 4 – Slow time, Earth time.

With gratitude to Wikipedia and Deuteronomy 29:23

Wanda Guthrie is the convenor of the EcoJustice Working Group, Thomas Merton Center

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