Donora residents remember killer smog 60 years ago


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When Donora's high school football team played their arch-rivals from Monongahela on Oct. 30, 1948, nothing could keep John Lignelli and hundreds of other fans away from Donora's Legion Field.

The game was played on Saturday afternoon when a heavy, smelly mixture of smoke and fog blanketed the town -- in effect turning day into night.

Residents of the then-bustling mill town were accustomed to polluted air, "but by God, yes, that was the worst we had ever seen," said Mr. Lignelli, who at that time was a 27-year-old steel mill worker.

"I was sitting far up in the stands and we had a hard time identifying the players. It was pretty rough watching. I was sitting with a gentleman who was called home because his father was ill."

Mr. Lignelli soon would learn that the man's father had died, as did 19 others. An estimated 6,000 people were sickened in what would become an infamous chapter in the town's history.

The 60th anniversary of the Donora killer smog will be marked later this year locally with commemorative programs and nationally with a special feature on The Weather Channel.

Events started on Oct. 26, when smoke and fog were trapped by an air inversion, keeping Donora and surrounding towns blanketed by pollutants that later were identified as sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and metal dust.

While the steel mill and zinc works continued to operate, the pollution grew steadily worse and the skies grew darker until Oct. 31 when the Donora Zinc Works shut down its smelters for the day.

The mood of the town "was not exactly panic but there was great concern," Mr. Lignelli said. "Older people were having respiratory problems. Delivery people coming from other towns had respirators on, but we were walking around" attending to business and scheduled activities, including a Friday night Halloween parade.

Sixty years later, Mr. Lignelli is now 87 and the long-time mayor of Donora, where most people know him by his nickname, "Chummy." He is one of the 35 members of the Donora Smog Commemoration Committee.

They've been working for more than seven months to "preserve and commemorate in a respectful and historically accurate manner the events of October 1948; and to acknowledge and accentuate the positive results that came out of the tragic circumstances," according to the mission statement posted on their Web site, www.donorasmog.com.

To mark the 60th anniversary, many events are planned for Oct. 20-26, culminating with a 2 p.m. memorial service with an interfaith choir at Our Lady of the Valley at the St. Philip Neri site.

A crew from the Weather Channel was in Donora last month, interviewing residents for a segment in its series "When Weather Made History," said committee member David Lonich. It is expected to air in October.

Members of the Donora Historical Society and faculty and staff from California University of Pennsylvania also are helping with the project.

"I'm not an environmental historian. I now know a lot more about the smog than I knew seven months ago." said Dr. Lonich, a retired Ringgold School District teacher who now teaches at Cal U.

"The smog settled in on Tuesday but people apparently weren't too concerned until Friday and Saturday when people were getting sick and dying," Dr. Lonich said. "Volunteer firemen were going door-to-door with oxygen. On Sunday afternoon, it rained and that broke up the smog."

Don Pavelko, a former steelworker and nine-year member of Donora Council who is president of the commemoration committee, said, "We feel that the people who died in the smog should be remembered."

Mr. Pavelko said residents did not die in vain. The Donora smog marked the beginning of the environmental movement including investigations, clean air legislation and the establishment of government environmental regulatory agencies, he said.

The committee is selling $10 T-shirts emblazoned with the logo, "Clean Air Started Here." The shirts are black and orange, which were the colors of Donora High School, which is now part of the Ringgold School District. The design, which includes industrial smokestacks on the back of the shirts, is credited to Cal U.

The commemorative begins Oct. 20 at 9 a.m. with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Donora Smog Museum at 595 McKean Ave. in a historic building that used to be a bank and later was a Chinese restaurant.

A symposium will follow, featuring guest speaker Devra Davis, a Donora native and epidemiologist who is director of the Center for Environmental Oncology of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute.

Donora's killer smog is featured in Dr. Davis' 2002 book, "When Smoke Ran Like Water -- Tales of Environmental Deception and the Battle Against Pollution." It was a National Book Award finalist.

Commemoration events include a banquet at the Donora Municipal Building at 5 p.m. Oct. 25, said committee secretary DeAnne Pavelko.

Other events, Mrs. Pavelko said, include:

• A commemorative play by Ringgold High School students, Oct. 21 and Oct. 22.

• Free health screenings at the Donora Borough Building, Oct. 23 and 24.

• A commemoration parade from Third Street to Eighth Street at 6 p.m. Oct. 23.

• A re-enactment of the Donora-Monongahela football game at 11 a.m. Oct 25 at Legion Field.


Linda Wilson Fuoco can be reached at lfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3064.


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