What Donora’s Smog Plaque Gets Right … And Wrong

What Donora’s Smog Plaque Gets Right … And Wrong

In 2008 a group of Donora-area residents presented a plaque to the town “in loving memory of the 1948 smog disaster victims.” The plaque is prominently affixed to a boulder near the Veterans Memorial on South McKean Avenue in Donora. It shows two columns of names, fourteen on the left and thirteen on the right, for a total of twenty-seven.

I wondered why there were so many names listed, when all of the news and magazine articles I read doing research for my book generally noted no more than twenty. Having extensively researched Donora, its history, and the smog, I can now confidently address the plaque’s accuracy and completeness, and I can say this to the group of residents behind the plaque: Your heart was in the right place, but the plaque is riddled with errors.

Plaque dedicated to smog victims

What the Plaque Gets Right

The plaque correctly lists the names of all actual victims. It doesn’t spell them all correctly, but the names are there:

  • Ivan Ceh
  • Barbara Chinchar
  • Taylor Circle
  • John Cunningham
  • Bernardo DiSanza (corrected 12/20/20 per his granddaughter)
  • Michael Dorincz
  • William Gardiner
  • Susan Gnora
  • Milton Hall
  • Emma Hobbs
  • Ignace Hollowiti
  • George Hvizdak
  • Jane Kirkwood
  • Marcel Kraska
  • Andrew Odelga
  • Ida Orr
  • Thomas Short
  • Peter Starcovich
  • Perry Stevens
  • Sawka Trubalis
  • John West

The plaque also rightly acknowledges the “many other lives” affected by the smog and that the smog was a “turning point” in the movement for cleaner air.

What the Plaque Gets Wrong

First, there are errors in the spelling of five surnames (right). The surname of Bernardo DiSanza, for instance, is spelled “Disanzi”. William Gardiner’s last name was often spelled without the i, so this error is forgivable. The misspelling of Mary Rozik’s surname is most certainly not, especially since Rozik family members continue to live in Webster. Bonnie and Shirley Rozik were among the first people I interviewed for my book and would have immediately set the record straight.

There is also no consistency in given names. For most victims the plaque lists a full first name. For some, though, it lists a shortened or casual first name. For instance, the plaque reads “Mike” rather than Michael Dorincz, “Jeannie” rather than Jane Kirkwood, and “Steve” rather than Stefan Faulchak. Why the plaque shows “Susan” Gnora rather than “Susie,” which is how everyone knew her, is beyond me.

The most likely explanation for so many spelling and formatting errors on such a prominent plaque is a lack of research. The people who prepared the plaque must have failed either to consult remaining family members of the victims or official records available at the time. My guess is that for some people the group used names that had been likewise misspelled in newspaper accounts at the time. In any case there clearly was not enough research done to ensure accuracy.

Perhaps if the group had asked historians familiar with the smog to review the list there would have been fewer errors. I can only assume from the wealth of errors that found their way onto the plaque that no reliable historian was consulted.

Misspellings aside, of the names of the twenty-seven people listed six of them did not die in the smog. They might have suffered during it — three of them definitely did — but they didn’t die in it. Let’s take a look at each of those six individuals.

Clifford DeVore. Mr. Devore, a carpenter, actually died May 5, 1949, from pneumonia. His name most likely made the list because he had been one of the people sent on a healthy-air vacation to Wilmington, North Carolina shortly after the smog ended. Having heard of the deadly smog in Donora the Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach Jaycees offered to host forty of the sickest survivors. They called the offer, eagerly and graciously accepted by Donora mayor August Chambon, the “Good WILLmington Mission.” DeVore was one of the people chosen by Donora physicians to go on the trip.

Gravestone of Stefan Polschak

Steve Faulchak. This one is a mystery. A headstone in Pittsburgh’s Birmingham Cemetery lists one “Stefan Polschak, Father.” He was born in 1874 and died June 7, 1949, seven months after the smog. Otherwise in the more than two years I spent researching the Donora smog I found just two other people with a name resembling “Steve Faulchak” who might have died around the time of the smog. I suspect that the plaque’s “Steve Faulchak” is the Stefan Polschak in the Pittsburgh cemetery. However, an AP article on Nov. 1, 1948, reported that a “Gustine Polchak” died in the smog, though it was later reported that he died from unrelated causes. Perhaps in someone’s memory “Gustine” morphed into “Steve” and “Polschak” was misheard as “Faulchak.” But those are simply educated guesses.

Ruth Jones. Ruth Jones, as near as I can tell, was a forty-five-year-old homemaker from West Newton, Pennsylvania. Her husband, Frank V. Jones, later signed on to a lawsuit against American Steel & Wire Company (AS&W) on behalf of Ruth, who died April 25, 1949, six months after the smog from complications of diabetes. So she was not a victim of the smog. She might have suffered from it, but she died too long afterward to be counted among those who perished as a direct result of the smog.

John Poklemba. There were a number of Polkembas in the area in the late 1940s, but only one, John Poklemba, is recorded as dying anywhere close to 1948. His identity was confirmed to me in 2018 by Bonnie Poklemba, wife of John’s nephew. John worked as a tractor operator for AS&W. An article in the Daily Republican from May 1949 indicated that Poklemba had become sick during the smog and never recovered. He perished May 24, 1949, from arteriosclerotic heart disease. Like Jones, Poklemba suffered during the smog but did not die as a direct result of it.

Mary Rozik. Mary Rozik (“Pozik” on the plaque) was a sixty-one-year-old widow from Webster who took ill during the smog. Like Clifford DeVore she was selected to go on the Good WILLmington Mission. She survived the smog, but continued to suffer lung problems until she succumbed on May 4, 1949, from pneumonia and asthma. A smog sufferer, but not a true victim.

Mary Rozik photo accompanying article on her death and that of Clifford DeVore

Alice Ward. Alice Ward was also one of the Mon Valley residents who traveled to North Carolina for rest and recuperation. A sixty-nine-year-old homemaker from Webster, Ward died March 20, 1949, from heart failure and chronic myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle). Again, a sufferer, not a victim.

Of note is that all six people erroneously listed on the plaque as victims all died within just eighty days of one another, with two of them — DeVore and Rozik — perishing within a single day. Odd, but not unheard of.

Other people from Donora and Webster areas undoubtedly died during that same eighty-day period, so to single out those six individuals for the plaque seems rather odd. My guess is that because DeVore, Rozik, and Ward were sent to North Carolina, they were remembered as “victims.” How the other three — Faulchak, Jones, and Poklemba — made the list remains puzzling.

Defining Terms

I think the main reason for the plaque listing six people who didn’t die in the smog relates to how the group defined the word victim. For my book and in this blog I consider as victims only people who had died during the smog or within sixty days from a condition clearly related to the smog.

Only twenty-one people fit that definition. If the group that created the plaque defined a victim as someone who died either in or from the smog, then the list should have been much, much longer and included names of individuals who died over the following year at least. The US Public Health Services followup report on the smog disaster stated that:

Persons who reported acute illness at the time of the smog episode have demonstrated subsequently higher mortality and prevalence of illness than the other persons living in the community at that time. Furthermore, persons who complained of more severe acute illness in 1948 demonstrate greater subsequent morbidity and mortality than persons with mild complaints.

Regardless of how the plaque creators initially defined the term victim, their desire to remember and honor the people who suffered and died during the smog was laudable. It’s just a shame the final product was so dreadfully inaccurate.

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