Museum remembers Donora's deadly 1948 smog

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On the sidewalk in front of the new Donora Smog Museum, a belated and earnest recognition of the once vibrant Mon Valley mill town and the smog that killed 20 of their neighbors 60 years ago, some guys who remembered were talking.

In the crowd of 100 that gathered for the official opening of the museum yesterday morning, Paul Brown said that on Oct. 30, 1948, Monongahela was playing Donora's Dragons at Legion Field and he got off early from his shift at U.S. Steel Corp.'s mill to go to the football game.

"It took a while to get up the hill to the game because it was so foggy, but I was sitting in the fourth row," said Mr. Brown, 81. "You could see them punt the ball, hear them kick it, but it would disappear into the cloud."

"[The smog] was like a big cloud of mist hanging over the players," said Sam Jackson, 73, of Monongahela, whose team whipped Donora 27-7 that Saturday afternoon while, down in the valley, their neighbors were dying.

"The next few days the Schwerha Funeral Home had eight bouquets on the front porch and eight bodies laid out, including one in the owner's living room," Mr. Brown said.

"Things were tough back then, and you knew the mines and the mills were unsafe," said Duane Patterson, 70, of Monongahela. "But they put bread on the table, bread and butter."

The museum, in a storefront at McKean Avenue and Sixth Street where a Chinese restaurant once served chop suey and fortune cookies, includes artifacts that tell the story of the proud and neighborly town those men remember and the cloud that stole its breath away.

Arrayed in, on and around old glass front cases like those you'd find in a bakery are hundreds of items -- yearbooks, town plot maps, autographed photos of Donora native Stan "The Man" Musial, zinc billets, duckpin bowling balls, mill employee badges, black and white photos, and yellowed newspaper clippings -- that depict what town life was like in 1948, and what happened when the killer smog hit.

"You couldn't see to step off the curb or to the end of your hand," remembered Dr. Charles Stacey, 76, one of the leaders of the museum committee and an equipment manager for Donora's football team in 1948. "During the football game, people and players were being summoned from the field to go home. One of the players, Stan Sawa, went home and found that his father had died."

In the November 1948 Life magazine on display, Dr. Bill Rongaus, a Donora physician, labeled the tragedy "Murder From the Mills," and said if the smog had lasted another evening the number of deaths could have topped 1,000.

The inversion finally ended on Sunday afternoon, when a rainstorm blew through the valley, just hours after U.S. Steel shut down its zinc smelting operations.

As it was, hundreds were evacuated and one-third of the town's 14,000 residents experienced health problems or were hospitalized. A decade later the town's mortality rate remained significantly higher than that of neighboring communities.

Located on a horseshoe bend of the Monongahela River, Donora produced steel, wire and nails, zinc billets and star athletes, and the fluoride-laced killer smog that eventually led to the study and regulation of air pollutants.

Speaking at a symposium, part of yesterday's opening ceremonies, Dr. Devra L. Davis, director of the Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, said there is new and growing evidence that fluoride gas produced by the zinc smelting process was trapped by the stagnant temperature inversion over the river valley and was responsible for the deaths. She said an autopsy done on one of the victims found fluoride levels 10 to 20 times normal, well into the lethal range.

"Donora was tragic, but it allowed us to understand how to avoid such tragedies in the future. That's the rationale behind public health research," said Dr. Davis, who was a 2-year-old in Donora at the time.

"There are Donoras happening today in areas of India and China," she said. "We can't go back, but we can and must warn those living under similar conditions today."

U.S. Steel would not accept blame for the pollution that resulted in the deaths, and many workers, worried that the mills could close, agreed at the time. The steel maker eventually reached an out of court settlement on all of the lawsuits filed because of the deaths.

"They settled for about $250,000 among 80 people," said Dr. Stacey. "No one got rich. After the lawyers were paid, most people had enough to buy a television set."

Donora has also moved slowly to accept its place in the dirty history of air pollution and its reluctant role in its study and control. Signs that it has hang on the old-style lampposts along McKean Avenue, the town's main drag. The Halloween orange and black banners for the Smog Museum bear the message: "Clean Air Started Here."


Don Hopey can be reached at dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.


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