Was There a 21st Victim of the Donora Death Fog?

Was There a 21st Victim of the Donora Death Fog?

Back in October 2019 I posted what I believed to be the final list of 20 victims of the Donora Death Fog. Well, I was wrong. There were actually 21.

Before I get to who the 21st victim was, let’s start with a bit of context. Newspapers and magazine articles right after the smog listed a variety of totals in the number of people who died during the smog, what I’ll henceforth call victims. Early accounts typically used 19 or 20, sometimes 21. With so much confusion, obtaining an exact total proved difficult, never mind getting all the spellings correct.

Then in 2008, on the 60th anniversary of the smog, a group of Donorans, called the Smog Committee, unveiled a plaque in honor of 27 victims. The plaque erroneously included names of individuals who died in 1949, not 1948. So, how many actually died from the smog?

Plaque unveiled on 60th anniversary of the smog

UPDATE The Society for Better Living, an anti-smog organization based in Webster, also produced a plaque listing several erroneous names, including one that has not appeared elsewhere, to my knowledge, that of Eugenio Perez. Mr. Perez was a metal drawer at the Zinc Works and died at 57 from heart failure in July 1949. So I am not considering him a direct victim of the smog.

Plaque from Society for Better Living

A 1949 report on the tragedy by the US Public Health Service, the precursor to the Department of Health and Human Services, listed 20 victims. The report also included a list of individuals who had been hospitalized during or immediately after the smog.

One person on that list was admitted during the smog on Oct. 30, treated, and released on Nov. 10. He was then readmitted on Dec. 3. Unfortunately he failed to respond to treatment, and he died just before Christmas, on Dec. 22. His name was George Hvizdak, often spelled Weisdack.

Now, should Hvizdak be considered a victim if he died so long after the smog?

I believe he should, and here’s why. According to George Leikauf, PhD, Professor of Environmental and Occupation Health at the University of Pittsburgh, air pollution epidemiologists typically use a delay period after an event to account for individuals whose conditions put them at increased risk of death from the event.

Dr. Leikauf says that an autopsy indicated that Hvizdak suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, possibly from smoking. He was a farmer who lived in Sunnyside, on the Webster side of the Monongahela. Prevailing winds carried an enormous amount of air pollution over Webster, so even if Hvizdak never smoked a day in his life, he would have breathed air pollution from Donora almost daily as he worked his farm.

Air pollution also accounts for another condition of his, pulmonary anthracosis. In pulmonary anthracosis, particulate matter — primarily carbon — in polluted air gathers in the lungs. Over time the carbon and other particulates interfere with breathing and with the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the lungs.

Micrograph of lung with pulmonary anthracosis. The black areas are deposits of carbon.

Hvizdak, then, suffered from two conditions intimately connected to air pollution: COPD and pulmonary anthracosis. With his preexisting conditions and his hospitalization during the smog, and with the delay period used by epidemiologists of 40–80 days, it makes sense that his death was directly related to the smog event.

So, Dr. Leikauf, what’s the bottom line?

The bottom line, per the good Dr. Leikauf, “George Hvizdak is the 21st victim.”

Gravestone of George Hvizdak in St. Michael’s Cemetery

Here, then, is the FINAL list of victims of the Donora Death Fog:

  • Ivan Ceh
  • Barbara Chinchar
  • Taylor G. Circle
  • John C. Cunningham
  • Bernardo Di Sanza
  • Michael Dorincz
  • William Gardner
  • Susan Gnora
  • Milton E. Hall
  • Emma Hobbs
  • Ignace Hollowiti
  • George Hvizdak
  • Jane L. Kirkwood
  • Marcel Kraska
  • Andrew Odelga
  • Ida Orr
  • Thomas A. Short
  • Peter Starcovich
  • Perry Stevens
  • Sawka Trubolis
  • John R. West

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