Posted By Bill Couzens Founder Less Cancer

DONORA, Pa. — When the killer smog rolled into town here in October 1948, 12-year-old Joann Crow thought it was an adventure.

“Dad couldn’t drive us to school because it was so hard to see,” said Mrs. Crow, now 72. “He had to walk us to school that Wednesday with a flashlight, which we thought was fun.”

But the next day, Thursday, Oct. 28, her grandmother, Susan Gnora, 62, started coughing and experiencing chest pains. It was the same for a lot of older residents of this Monongahela River valley mill town 24 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.

“She died the next day. That’s when we all got worried,” said Mrs. Crow, a retired child care worker. “They tried to blame it on asthma. But we knew that wasn’t true. She was always so strong. It was that smog from the mills.”

By the time a rain on Oct. 31 cleared the air, 20 people in Donora had died, and nearly half the town became ill in one of the worst air pollution disasters in the nation’s history.

After decades of largely remaining silent about the horrors of that week, Donora residents began to open up about it in recent years, placing a historical marker in town on the 50th anniversary.

Over the last two weeks, they marked the 60th anniversary with memorials for the families of those who died, discussions with experts about the lessons learned, and the opening of the Donora Smog Museum, with the slogan “Clean Air Started Here.”

“It was the first time that people really understood that a lot of air pollution in a short period of time could kill people,” said Dr. Devra Davis, director of the Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh and author of “When Smoke Ran Like Water,” about air pollution. She is also a Donora native who was 2 at the time of the smog.

The Donora smog gained national attention and helped lead to some of the first local and state pollution control laws, and, eventually, the 1970 federal Clean Air Act.

“We want people to realize Donora was a big part of the environmental movement,” said Don Pavelko, a Donora councilman who came up with idea for the museum. “The smog in Donora over the years had been looked upon as a black eye. The older folks just didn’t want to talk about it because they thought it was bad publicity.”

The museum, in a former Chinese restaurant, brings together photographs, old newspapers, maps and copies of studies of the smog. Brian Charlton, a high school history teacher, has been appointed archivist and is pursuing oral histories of that week.

Paul C. Brown, 81, who worked in the steel mills then, remembered going to work at the mill that Saturday.

“We all thought it would lift eventually, because we were used to the fog in the valley,” he said. “Then I started to hear about people getting sick.”

Smog was not unusual in Donora, a town of 14,000 then that was home to the American Steel & Wire Company and the Donora Zinc Works plants — both run by the United States Steel Company — that sat along the river and employed 5,000 people.

But this was different. The thick, yellowish, acrid smog was the result of an unusual weather inversion — a pocket of warm, stagnant air — that sat over the valley for five days.

Underneath what was essentially a lid on the valley were sulfuric acid, nitrogen dioxide and other poisonous gases, including fluorine, that would normally rise into the atmosphere. Most researchers blame the zinc plant, which had long been a source of complaints and was responsible for the denuding of almost all vegetation within a half mile of the plant.