The Killer Smog in Donora, 1948
"A murderous villain terrorized the town of Donora during the last week of October 1948. The silent killer took the lives of 20 people and left thousands of others in its wake. The killer came in without warning and vanished in a puff of smoke.
On the western bank of the Monongahela River lies the small town of Donora. In 1948, the town was home to 14,000 residents, 6,500 whom worked for the area’s two mills, the American Steel & Wire Co. and Donora Zinc Works. Unbeknownst to the majority of the residents, the factories that sustained their livelihood would also be the cause for illness in a large majority of the town’s population and even death for some.
On October 27, 1948, thick, opaque smog began to cover the small, flat river town. “You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face,” said resident Bill Schempp in a 1998 Tribune-Review article by Lynne Glover. Schempp described the scene as something “out of this world.” He would recall to David Templeton in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that “if you chewed [the air] hard enough, you could swallow it.”
Within 24-hours of the smog’s arrival, police began to receive an alarming number of calls about residents who were having trouble breathing. As time progressed, the calls got more serious. Soon, those with existing respiratory problems began to die and those who were not sick began to feel the effects of the unusual fog.
The town’s hospitals started to fill up and soon began to overflow with the sick and dying. Both the Monongahela Memorial and Charleroi-Monessen Hospitals became too crowded, and the town had to convert its community center into a morgue.
Those who tried to escape found their attempts futile. Devra Davis, author of When Smoke Ran Like Water and epidemiologist, toxicologist and air pollution expert, said that those who tried to escape could not because they could not see through the smog while driving. This occurred even when the town kept its streetlights on during the day in an effort to combat the problem. The dense fog had the residents trapped in the small town, and they had no choice but to ride it out.
Schempp was a firefighter during the incident. He responded to the calls that were being placed, but said it took him an hour to get to a house five blocks away because visibility was so poor. When Schempp did arrive with his 135-pound oxygen tank, he was unable to give the wheezing all of the oxygen they desired. He had to keep moving in order to help other residents.
Schempp was able to help many, but he could not stop the effects of the killer cloud. The deadly smog took the lives of 20 citizens and left a third of the town’s population ill. Of those who were killed, all were between the ages of 52 and 85 years-old and had a history of health problems. The sickened 6,000 others faced headaches, stomach pains, and vomiting.
Luckily, the smog was stopped from causing any more harm when two things occurred. First, the factory was ordered to shut down. Those on the city council and those who ran the steel mills both initially refused to shut down the mills because they did not believe the mills were responsible for the sudden deaths of many of the residents. Due to much pleading by many of the town’s doctors and residents, the mill gave in. The second reason the smog retreated was due to a storm that rolled into town on Halloween, October 31, 1948. The storm is said to have saved the town because it broke the temperature inversion that had started during the last week in October."
"While the temperature inversion is blamed for being one cause of the Donora disaster, emissions from the city’s mills is said to be another. The exact amounts of toxins in the air during the incident are unknown. In “The Donora Fluoride Fog: A Secret History of America’s Worst Air Pollution Disaster,” Chris Bryson explains that the records containing that information are missing from the U.S. Public Health Service’s archives, and that U.S. Steel is blocking records similar in nature.
To this day, the Public Health Service has concluded that the deaths in Donora were due to a temperature inversion."http://www.pabook.libraries.psu.edu/pal ... aSmog.html
Fireman, responder to smog disaster dies at 91
"Bill Schempp emerged as a small-town hero and fireman, going door-to-door with oxygen in Donora during the nation's deadliest air pollution disaster.
This week, Schempp, who died Sunday, December 14, 2008, at age 91, is being remembered as a father figure to young firefighters whom he trained over the years.
"He always welcomed us at any time to his home and loved to talk to us about the olden times," said Casey Perrotta, 27, a borough fireman and local code enforcer.
Schempp was just 31 when he answered a call from his fire chief, Charles Cumberland, to take an 18-inch oxygen tank to offer fresh air to people who were gasping for their breaths during the Donora smog of 1948.
It took him nearly an hour to walk up Donora's steep Sixth Street with the tank in one arm and using the other to feel his way through the thick smog linked to stagnant air and pollution from the local steel and zinc mills.
The nation's first clean air laws were spawned from the event that claimed at least 20 lives over that Halloween weekend.
And through the years, reporters from all corners of the United States have called on Schempp to retell his story about the disaster.
On the famous mission, he offered an oxygen mask to the sick to take just two or three breaths before he had to move on. The calls just kept mounting. At some houses, people clung to him or shouted to keep him from leaving.
"There wasn't a damned thing you could do about it," Schempp told a reporter with Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service for a story on the smog's 50th anniversary.
"There were too many calls to help everyone," said Schempp's friend, Paul Brown of Donora. "I worked in that mill. I know how bad it was, so I know what he went through."www.observer-reporter.com/OR/Story/12-1 ... hempp-Obit