First, I loved Chadwick Boseman. He was a wonderful actor and seemed for all the world a lovely, kind, decent man.
Second, my beloved mother died of colon cancer a couple of years after it had metastasized to her liver. She died young, just 56. So I have a special, immeasurable hatred of colon cancer.
When news broke of Boseman’s death of that horrible, despicable, repugnant disease, I was first stunned and saddened that we lost a truly great human. Then another thought came, and I didn’t like it.
Why on earth would he have chosen to work as hard as he clearly did while undergoing chemotherapy and, most likely, at least one operation to treat his illness? Why would he have continued those horrifically long days filming movies, as well as all of those horrifically long days promoting the films —all the meet-and-greets, the red carpets, the interviews, the flying all over the globe. Why?
He must have been constantly fatigued. He certainly pushed his body to the brink during production, and for an actor that’s commendable. But for a human with a systemic, potentially deadly disease, all of that physical and emotional work must have taken a substantial toll on his overall health and how well his body responded to the chemotherapies. It had to have.
Boseman was a strong, muscular, energetic artist, and his body proved capable of withstanding an enormous amount of stress, but no body can keep up that kind of punishing schedule over the long term.
Now, I obviously don’t know any of the particulars of Boseman’s treatment, his prognoses over the years, or his own reasons for working so much during therapy. Perhaps he knew, somehow, at some level, that he wouldn’t survive and so decided to leave as large a legacy as he could in the time he had left. I don’t know.
What I do know is that each of the many decisions he made over the last few years — signing on to do this movie or that, attending this premiere or that, sitting down for late-night interviews, and myriad other decisions — must have greatly affected his overall health. He would have known that; he was far too intelligent not to have. His doctors probably told him so as well; they would have been negligent if they didn’t. Yet he made those decisions anyway.
Maybe I would have done the same. Maybe if I knew what Chadwick knew, maybe I would have continued to work too, maybe there was no other acceptable choice. I don’t know.
But I wish he hadn’t worked so hard. I wish he had taken it easier. I wish the treatments had worked.
I was just reading this news story about a young Detroit woman who had been declared dead at a hospital but was subsequently found at the funeral home to be still alive, shockingly just before she would have been embalmed.
Now, what happened to that young lady is horrible, terrible, and I’m so glad she is still alive, as of this writing. But having something similar happen at a hospital where I was working many, many years ago, there can also be a lighthearted, yet still tragic, side.
I was working part-time as an RN in the critical care unit of a small Connecticut hospital when a code blue was sounded from the medical step-down unit next door. Code blues then, as often now, signal that a patient has become suddenly ill and needs the immediate attention of a team of cardiorespiratory professionals. One or more ICU nurses typically attended codes back then, and this particular time I went.
I worked with the physicians, nurses, and other team members in a crowded semi-private room to resuscitate an older woman whose heart and breathing had stopped. At one point I and another nurse wheeled the woman’s roommate, in her bed, into the hallway, to shield her somewhat from the frantic goings-on in the room. I explained that we were doing everything we could to save the woman. The roommate nodded understanding, but she was obviously concerned.
Back in the room we worked and worked, but to no avail. We couldn’t get her heart restarted, and she had no blood pressure. Her own physician ran the code; she happened to have been on the unit at the time. She and I had known each other several years at that point, so I wasn’t surprised when changes in her voice and countenance signaled that she was transitioning from an intense, let’s-do-this approach to one of acceptance of the reality of a life ending. She looked at me with a I think I should call it kind of look, and I responded with a look of Yes, it’s time.
“Okay, that’s enough,” she said. She declared the time of death and went to call the family. The rest of us began the post-code cleanup process, but it was dinnertime and trays needed to be passed around to the other patients. The unit’s head nurse told her staff to pass trays quickly and then finish the cleanup. I headed back to ICU, but on the way I explained to the roommate what had happened. “Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said, “she seemed nice.”
This Is Where It Gets Interesting
I had been back in ICU for probably ten minutes, when I decided to help the step-down unit and start cleaning up in the code room. We were slow in the unit, so why not? What I saw at the bedside compelled me to alert the physician; let’s call her Maggie. (I called nearly all physicians by their first name once I got to know them.)
“Maggie, It’s Andy. I’m with the patient we just coded, and I think you should get up here. She’s still breathing.”
“I’m sure she’s not breathing, Andy, it’s probably just agonal respirations.” Now, I had been around the block a few times, and I knew agonal respirations from normal respirations. Agonal respirations are quasi-breaths that can occur after death. They tend to be abrupt, almost a gasp, and are the result of a reflex of the brainstem in the last biochemical throes of life. These were most certainly not agonal respirations.
“I don’t think so, Maggie. Her respiratory rate is 24…”
“… and her pulse is 90.”
“But I already called the family!”
“I called the funeral home too.” Maggie was becoming distraught. “They’re on their way over now! What am I supposed to tell them?”
“Well, I gotta tell ya, I don’t think they’ll take her like this.”
I had already put the woman back on oxygen by this point and had assessed her vital signs, and Maggie arrived moments later. She stood on the other side of the bed from me, and we both looked down at the lady, whose color had perked up and who continued to breathe pretty well for someone who had been pronounced dead not long ago.
I said, “I think we need to get her back into the unit.”
“Yes, I guess so.”
With that we wheeled the “dead” woman out the door and down the hall past her roommate, whose eyes swelled open in stunned disbelief. I could almost hear her stammer out the words, “But, but, you said…”
Unfortunately the woman died about two days later, her body too weak to continue its miracle journey. She never regained consciousness. When she finally — and for real — passed away, poor Maggie had to call the family and the funeral home again.
What were the first words out of the mouth of the family member and the mortician who received those calls?
I’ve just read a New York Times article by an ICU physician called, “When You Die of the Coronavirus, You Die Alone.” It is a heartrending look at the final days of COVID-19 patients whose family members are being blocked from being with their loved one in their greatest time of need for fear of spreading the virus.
The article made me think of the smog victims in Donora that dreary October weekend in 1948. Eleven of the victims were married at the time of their death, and because families back then were so close I want to believe that most of them died with family by their side. We know that Bernardo Di Sanzi died with his loving wife, Liberata, by his side. Many others, though, were single or otherwise alone. Did they die alone? I hope not.
In the article the physician, Daniela Lamas, explores the pain of a policy that must be implemented for the greater good. “Here in my hospital,” she writes, “as in so many others throughout the country, we’ve banished most visitors. It’s a tough decision that leaves our patients to suffer through their illnesses in a medical version of solitary confinement. And I’m worried for them. Because those of us on the front lines simply don’t have a plan for this.”
The attitudes about allowing families to remain with extremely ill patients changed over time, particularly during the last twenty or so years of the twentieth century. Rather than preventing family from entering a critically ill patient’s room, we realized the health benefits that come from a husband’s touch, a wife’s soothing voice, a child’s smile. Since that time most hospitals have welcomed families with open arms.
But this damn virus is changing that. Dr. Lamas told one couple, the wife on a respirator in the unit, that her loving husband couldn’t visit anymore, that the visit today would be the last. Listen to the pain in her voice about what happened the next day.
I entered the unit, headed to my patient’s room. She was awake already, breathing quickly on the ventilator, eyes wide. When she saw me, she started to mouth words. Her husband would have been able to understand, but her lips moved quickly and I had no idea what she was trying to say. She soon grew frustrated. “I’m sorry,” I told her. But she was done. She closed her eyes and turned away, toward the empty chair next to her bed. I apologized once more and then, as my pager summoned me down the hall, I stepped from the room, leaving her alone.
Hug your loved ones today. With this deadly, despicable virus on the loose, who knows what tomorrow will bring?
Writers tend to work mostly in their home office, sitting at a computer, with books and papers scattered hither and yon around them. I normally spend the majority of my day that way, banging away on the keys or with highlighter and pen in hand, going over books and printed articles about my topic, the Donora Death Fog.
Now is not a normal time. Now is the time of coronavirus, when we’re all practicing social isolation and washing our hands like Howard Hughes wannabes. Me, I don’t mind. I’m normally home anyway, and I tend to wash my hands frequently through the day. I still have to get up and down all day to let the dogs in and out. (For cryin’ out loud, Lola, you just went out!) So my days aren’t terribly upset.
But my mind is. I am, at this age, what many people would call “old.” I don’t call it that, I call myself “highly experienced.” So there.
I know that this virus affects older people more harshly, as most viruses do, and the mortality rate for us is significantly higher than that for younger folks. I don’t have any pulmonary issues, thank goodness, but I’m not as strong as I used to be either. I know that if I contract coronavirus I’ll probably get whacked pretty hard. It’s possible I’ll even die as a result.
So as I sit in my chair, working on my book, those kinds of thoughts pass through my aging head regularly, all day long. Not constantly, but enough so I feel their weight.
Still, I’d rather be home writing, with my wonderful wife home as well, than anywhere else. And for that I’m grateful.
Walk through Donora anytime today and you’ll have to work hard to imagine what the deadly 1948 smog might have been like. You have to divorce the sparkling clean air in Donora today from your mind, block it out completely, to even begin to imagine the worst days of the smog that October.
In that way Donorans are fortunate, more so than residents in a host of cities around the nation and the world. In 2017, for instance, nearly 3,000 people in five areas of California died of pollution-related illnesses. In Pittsburgh, there were 232 deaths, and in Chicago, 120. Nationwide, there were 7,140 more deaths from air pollution in 2017 than in 2010.
Europe has its own hotspots, starting with Italy’s Po Valley. The Po River runs from the western Alps nearly straight across Italy’s northernmost section to the northern Adriatic Sea. Throughout the valley lies a huge swath of polluted air (below), stuck there by the Alps to the north. The pollution stems from home heating fuel and vehicle emissions more than industrial sources.
Southern Poland also suffers from extreme air pollution, largely from coal-fired power plants and the burning of wood, a remarkably common way for residents to heat their homes.
Pollution in Bosnia Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Turkey all have markedly high levels of particulate matter in their air. Perhaps the worst pollution, though, is in South Asia, which houses 18 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities, including cities in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
According to a March 12, 2019 study published in the European Heart Journal, air pollution can take as much as two years of life from anyone exposed to it. “To put this into perspective,” says Thomas Münzel, German cardiologist and one of the study’s authors, “this means that air pollution causes more extra deaths a year than tobacco smoking, Smoking is avoidable, but air pollution is not.”
As much as the world learned from Donora in ’48 and London in ’52, there remains much work to be done. Let’s hope we do it soon.
EcoSense for Living recently posted to PBS an excellent video on the Donora smog tragedy and how air pollution continues to affect people throughout the world. The Donora section highlights environmental epidemiologist Devra Davis, author of When Smoke Ran Like Water, a book exploring not just the Donora smog but also numerous other areas of pollution. It’s a great read, give it a look.
We tred carefully through the brambles, weeds, and bushes devouring a hillside cemetery in the north end of Donora, Pa. We step from one small monument to another, making our way as close as we can, without a machete, to the largest monument, the one marking the grave of Capt. John Gilmore. Gilmore was a well-off steamboat captain and coal mine owner who served in the Civil War.
My guide this day is Mark Pawelec, a key, long-time member of the Donora Historical Society and a veritable fount of information on the town. He is showing me this aged, overgrown, nearly forgotten cemetery. In an era of decreasing burials efforts have been made here to restore the cemetery, most recently those of Donora councilman Dennis Gutierrez (above, right), spurred on by one of Capt. Gilmore’s descendants, Clifford Gilmore (above, left). Read about those herculean efforts here.
Civil War veterans, infants, accident victims, and a host of other area residents from the turn of the 20th Century are buried here. Here are some of the more interesting observations from a 2015 document outlining the internees, compiled by Dee Turek Bryner, a descendent of the prominent early Donora family, the Ammons. Dee combed through funeral records, court documents, death certificates, obituaries, and some of his family’s ledgers to provide a treasure trove of data.
Civil War Vets
Ten Civil War veterans buried in the cemetery have been identified. Others may be buried here as well, but it seems no data remains to prove it. Here are four of those veterans.
Phillip Kern, 67, husband of Martha Brown, died April 10, 1914 from “dropsy.” At that time dropsy meant just swelling and didn’t indicate a cause. Today it’s called edema. At 67 years old I suspect Mr. Kern died from heart failure, which causes edema of the lower legs.
James Boyd, 75, son of William and Frances Whitney, member of the Ringgold Cavalry Company E, died Feb. 1, 1905 from “general debility.” Old age.
Jacob Baldwin, 53, died Nov. 27, 1894 from “paralysis,” a term probably referring to a stroke, or cerebrovascular accident (CVA). Other diagnoses are possible, certainly, but CVAs in those days were common — and unfortunately still are.
Another Baldwin, Nathaniel, 64, also died of “paralysis,” succumbing Jan. 6, 1901.
Infants and children have always been uniquely vulnerable to disease and birth defects, and at the turn of the century that was especially true. Here are a smattering of the youngsters buried here.
The Ammon family suffered several losses, including Amanda, 19; Amanda Christa, 13; and two children named Benjamin Frank, one of whom died at 1 month and the other at 6 months. Records indicate a cause of death for only one, 6-month-old Benjamin, who died of hydrocephalus, commonly called water on the brain. We know today that hydrocephalus can have a number of origins and in many cases can be successfully treated.
More than 25 children were stillborn. Others died as a result of prematurity. Most premature infants at the time died at or shortly after birth.
One infant, Thomas Malie, is listed as having died of marasmus at age 8 months, 2 days. Marasmus is a protein malnutrition common in areas of extreme poverty.
Yay! University of Pittsburgh Press has agreed to publish Donora Death Fog: Clean Air and the Tragedy of a Pennsylvania Mill Town! I am absolutely thrilled that Sandy Crooms, Editorial Director at UPitt Press, and I will be working together to bring the book to fruition. Sandy came to UPitt from Ohio State University Press in 2013 and now not only directs the acquisitions department but also signs in environmental studies, urban history, and African American history.
I am thrilled to announce that I have signed with Bookends Literary Agency for my book Silver Lining: Clean Air and the Tragedy of a Pennsylvania Mill Town. My agent, Amanda Jain, and her team will represent my proposal for the book to publishers and work with me to gain a publishing contract. At that point I can move fully forward with finishing my research and actually writing the manuscript.
I have been writing now — officially, professionally, occasionally happily — for 35 years, and I don’t believe I have ever, until now, committed to paper exactly why. So, let’s have at it.
I write to clarify what I think and why I think it. And because I find other people’s stories so fascinating, I write nonfiction. I have never been particularly adept at making up my own stories, which saddens me no end. Over the years, though, I found that I have a modest talent for telling real-life stories in a clear and I hope compelling way. Like all writers I gain enormous pleasure from those brief moments when a clever turn of phrase or a particularly memorable sentence bubbles to the surface from who knows where. Those are the moments that keep me going and that I wish I had more of.
A friend of mine recently posted on Facebook a link to a press release from her company that explained the company’s position on how the current administration is handling immigrant families at our nation’s borders. The release said that the company “does not support measures that discriminate against any group or limit our ability to hire the best talent for our business.”
A mutual friend of ours then responded with a comment essentially calling out the statement as typical liberal overreaction to a basically nonexistent issue. Well, I went off on him, and it wasn’t pretty. The “current administration,” which is the nicest way I can think of to say, “those cruel, spineless, worthless ass wipes in the White House,” has made a complete mess of how we deal with immigrant families coming across our southern border, legally or illegally. (At this point, ICE makes no such distinction.) The issue has become a hot-button topic for me, and I reacted swiftly to his post and, I admit now, meanly.
Just a few days later I was presented, apparently by cosmic fate, two items that have given me a new perspective on how Facebook and other social media have helped to make compromise nearly impossible and how I, in turn, could make my role in protesting obscene policies more effective, rational, and humane.
Cosmic Item #1
The first item was a TED video from a remarkable young man, Dylan Marron, a digital creator who examines social issues in new and illuminating ways. The video, “How I Turn Negative Online Comments Into Positive Offline Conversations,” came to me at just the right time, when I was internally fretting over the string of comments with my friend, let’s call him Garry. My mind was arguing that I was right, but my gut wasn’t so sure.
Dylan talked about the number of hate comments he receives almost daily, and how he decided to engage with as many of his haters as he could — by phone. Most of the people he contacted agreed to speak with him, though some didn’t. Of those he spoke with, most seemed to him quite different than their comments might suggest. For example, at the end of a conversation with one of the commenters, Dylan asked, “Did the conversation we just had make you feel differently about how you write online?”
The commenter responded, “Yeah! You know, when I said this to you, when I said you were a ‘talentless hack,’ I had never conversed with you in my life, really. I didn’t really know anything really about you. And I think that a lot of times, that’s what the comment sections really are, it’s really a way to get your anger at the world out on random profiles of strangers, pretty much.”
Dylan came away from this project, as did I and, I suspect, many others, with a clearer understanding of empathy in these fraught times. He said, “Empathy is not endorsement. Empathizing with someone you profoundly disagree with does not suddenly compromise your own deeply held beliefs and endorse theirs. Empathizing with someone who, for example, believes that being gay is a sin doesn’t mean that I’m suddenly going to drop everything, pack my bags and grab my one-way ticket to hell, right? It just means that I’m acknowledging the humanity of someone who was raised to think very differently from me.”
Those words, “empathy is not endorsement,” panged my gut, and I realized that I don’t have to feel so angry at Trump Supporters-slash-Hilliary Haters, that I can recognize their humanity while also disagreeing completely with their views. It’s as if I now have a cognitive tool I can use when faced with similar situations: Empathy is not endorsement. Yes, I like it.
He posits that “the Sanders-Red Hen situation has unearthed (or perhaps vivified) a growing sentiment in our society. It is seen in liberals and opponents of President Trump who are done with playing nice. It is apparent as the Democratic Party gradually sheds Michelle Obama’s declaration that ‘When they go low, we go high’ and trading it for ‘We fight fire with fire.’ It is borne of frustration and a lack of results after abiding by the norms of political discourse while Trump and his allies run roughshod over all the old rules.”
The Left is in new territory, here, and we’re not sure what to do. We’re going through a watershed moment in American history, and we’re finding many issues that need to be discussed, debated, and worked through. How we on the Left deal with friends on the Right, not only on social media but also, and more important, in person, will come to define not only our relationships with others but also how we will function in our rapidly-changing society. It’s a tough time, and I have no idea how things will turn out, but my gut says that, for me, Michelle Obama’s path is the right one.
And so, to Garry, I apologize for my tone, for reacting so forcefully, and for not being open to an actual conversation. And to everyone else whose political views vary so much from my own, I will do my best to take the high road with my commentary and to listen as closely as I can to opposing viewpoints.
But so help me, if that Cheetoh-headed nutjob does just one more evil, uncaring, knuckleheaded thing, I swear to God I’ll…
My wife and I watch the Oscars every year, and we chat about which dresses and tuxes we like and which we don’t. She knows waaay more about fashion than I do. I know virtually nothing except that I can identify a wide variety of women’s shoes. (Slingbacks, kitten heels, open-toed pumps — don’t even get me started.) We dutifully watched the 90th Oscars last night, and I give you now my best-ofs in my own categories.
Best-Dressed Woman — I have to go with Nicole Kidman, who wowed in a gorgeous blue number, the ginormous bow and all.
Best-Dressed Man — Black Panther‘s Chadwick Bozeman, for sure. So cool. So very, very cool.
Worst-Dressed Woman — At first I thought, Oh, it’s Emily Blunt, who I think is marvelous, but she sure missed last night. Then I saw someone named St. Vincent, who is apparently a singer. I don’t know why she hung luggage on her shoulder, but I wish she hadn’t.
Worst-Dressed Man — Armie Hammer. Armie, really? Red velvet?
Best Necklace — Gal Gadot. Is it ga-doh or ga-dot? I have no clue, but that necklace was somethin’ else.
Best Red — Allison Janney, who looked “stunnnn-nnniiinnnggg,” according to the E! team, who used the term like 87 times
Best Blue — Nicole Kidman again, though Jennifer Garner’s blue was beautiful as well
Best Use of Black — Hands down, Lupita Nyong’o, who always looks elegant
Nicest Try, But Yeah, No — Margot Robbie, with her strikingly square shoulders and a dress that did nothing for her. Her hair looked weird too.
Best Pink — The almost unrecognizable but always lovely Viola Davis
Most Matronly — Maya Rudolph, who looks like she might be pregnant under all that red stuff
Best Balloon Curtains — Andra Day. Nothing more to add.
Best Didn’t Work Then, Doesn’t Work Now — Rita Moreno
Looking back on those dark, horridly smoggy days in Donora in 1948, one tends to think first of the smoke, the dirty, dusty, sooty smoke, with all of its toxins, pouring out of the smokestacks of the zinc, steel, and wire mills that dominated the valley back then. One tends not to think much or often of the other elements involved, those that, together, set up so perfectly the tragedy that befell the town. Among those elements was the wind, of which there was virtually none.
If even a slight breeze had strolled through the Donora valley that week the smoke would have broken up, giving residents some respite. But no, there was no breeze to be had, not in Donora, nor in Monessen to the south, nor in Monongahela to the north. There was, in fact, nary a breeze to be had throughout the entire Northeast that week.
The image below is part of a national weather map from September 29, 1948, a month before the Donora tragedy. The black lines, marked here by orange arrows, indicate general wind speeds. The closer the lines, the greater the wind speed. On this day the wind was pretty much normal, with light breezes along the eastern U.S.
Now look at this map from October 29, in the thick of the smog that killed so many in Donora and Webster. Note how far apart the lines are. Wind bands are almost non-existent, and in the Donora valley along the Monongahela, there was no wind whatsoever.
With conditions like that, air in the valley stagnated, collecting pollutants and sickening thousands. That morning Ralph Koehler, one of Donora’s eight physicians, looked out his bathroom window over the rooftops below, toward the mills. A glint of light caught his eye as he watched a train plodding along the tracks. Normally smoke would have risen from the smokestacks into the air, but that day something odd happened. “The smoke was belching out,” said Koehler, “but it didn’t rise. I mean, it didn’t go up at all. It just spilled over the lip of the stack like a black liquid, like ink or oil, and rolled down to the ground and lay there. My God, it just lay there!”
The absence of wind at ground level prevented the natural upward movement of smoke not just from the train but also from the nearly dozen 200-foot-tall smokestacks of the various mills. It wasn’t for another two days, on Sunday — Halloween — that Donorans felt their first puffs of wind in six days. That Sunday a cold front (blue arrow, below) moved in from the west and brought with it a slight breeze, light showers toward midday, and then a steady rain later. Between the wind stirring the lifeless air and water droplets washing the soot away, the fog lifted and the air returned to what Donorans considered rather more normal.
A granite slab lying flat on the ground marks the grave of Jeanie B. Kirkwood, a victim of the Donora smog of 1948. Everyone knew her as Jeanie, but her name was actually Jane. Jeanie was born in Wishaw, Scotland, about forty-five minutes southeast of Glasgow, to Alexander Rensick and Mary Mackie on November 11, 1880, just a few days after James A. Garfield won the U.S. presidential election. She arrived in this country in New York in 1911, moved to Donora, and worked as a practical nurse until her retirement.
Ivan Ceh came from Rijeka, a seaport city on the northeast coast of the Adriatic Sea, in what is now Croatia. He emigrated from there in 1902, eventually settling in Donora in 1903. He worked at the wire mill in town, and he died at his home, on Fifth Street, just up the hill from Saint Michael the Archangel Byzantine Catholic Church.
Both Jeanie and one Ivan Ceh died at two o’clock on the morning of October 30, 1948, the worst day of the smog. Jeanie and Ivan were the first victims of the worst smog event in U.S. history, the smog that led the way to the nation’s first clean air act. Both individuals show up in pretty much everyone’s list of victims, as do Ida Orr, John Cunningham, Andrew Odelga, and Perry Stevens.
A bit of context. I’ve been immersed for the past few weeks in researching all the people usually listed as smog victims, and it has been interesting. Most newspaper accounts in late 1948 and early 1949 use 20 as the total number of victims from the smog, which began on Tuesday, October 26, and ended the following Sunday, October 31. Historians at the Donora Historical Society (DHS) have typically used the number 27 as the total count, based on a slightly longer time period for the event, a reasonable approach. I may end up, when this phase of my research is completed, with a longer time period as well, possibly even longer than the DHS timeline. For instance, I want to include Thomas Amos Short, who died from asthmatic bronchitis, a commonly listed cause of death from the smog, and whose death certificate specifically indicates “(Smog)” in the cause of death. (Below.)
All the lists I’ve seen, though, are slightly inaccurate. Now, developing any ancestral history can be difficult, to say the least. Inconsistent spellings of names can be an issue, especially in newspapers.The Daily Republican, a newspaper in Monongahela that ceased operations in 1970, listed Marcel Karska as a victim, but the name was actually Kraska, referring to a 66-year-old Donora resident who died at 11:45 AM on the 30th. The DHS list includes one George Weisdock, but his name was actually Hvizdak, often anglicized to Weisdack. Pretty much every list includes the name William Gardner. His actual name, however, was Cardner, with a C.
Then, too, the extent of information can leave much to be desired. It seems that not everyone received a death certificate in 1948, or, if they did, it was lost or never archived. Marriage applications, census data, immigration passenger lists, and so forth, are also often inaccurate or provide inconsistent information.
Donora residents in particular pose an issue, because so many of them were immigrants whose names Americans found difficult to pronounce and, thus, to spell. Census data are filled with erroneously spelled names, owing at least in part to an oral interview process of people with thick, foreign accents.
So it is with a fair degree of caution that I provide the following lists of victims and non-victims of the death fog. To the best of my knowledge the information here is accurate as of today, January 2, 2018.
NOTE: If you have information on any of these individuals, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would be most appreciative.
John C. Cunningham
Bernardo Di Sanza
Milton Elmer Hall
Jane (Jeanie) L. Kirkwood
Ida Orr (not Ore)
Thomas Amos Short
Commonly and Inaccurately Listed as Victims
Clifford E. DeVore, who died on May 5, 1949, from terminal pneumonia
George Weisdack, whose actual last name was Hvizdak, who died December 22, 1948, from chronic myocarditis and nontuberculous lung abscesses
John Poklemba, who died May 24, 1949, had become sick in the smog and never recovered
Mary Rozik, commonly listed as Mary Pozik, who died May 4, 1949, from hypostatic pneumonia, bronchiectasis, and cardiovascular disease, a catch-all used principally for arteriosclerosis and atherosclerosis, which often occur together
With the EPA undergoing extensive downsizing and the Trump administration wanting to open previously protected lands to oil and shale drilling, Donora continues to remind the nation of the need for clean air.
The recent opening of a natural gas fueling station near the site of the old steel mills in Donora provides yet another lesson for the nation. Nearly 69 years ago a weather condition called a temperature inversion trapped smoke pouring out of steel and zinc mills in Donora. The smoke contained pollutants and toxic gases and led to the deaths of 27 people during the event and hundreds more later.
Within two years President Harry S. Truman would call the nation’s first technical conference on air pollution, citing the deaths in Donora as the final straw. He told the scientists gathered at the conference, “Air contaminants exact a heavy toil. They destroy growing crops, damage valuable property, and blight our cities and the countryside. In exceptional circumstances, such as those at Donora, Pa, in 1948, they even shorten human life. I trust that the recommendations made by this conference will aid in the shaping of a comprehensive plan for the study and control of atmospheric pollution.”
Those recommendations and other efforts led to the nation’s first clean air act in 1955, and for Donora, at least, clean air remains a priority. The Mid Mon Valley Transit Authority, which operates a 29-bus fleet, including eight that run on natural gas, is proud to have opened its compressed natural gas fueling station on the old mill site. “It’s ironic,” said the transit authority’s executive director Donna Weckoski, “that we’re on an old steel mill site that an one time caused the Donora smog 69 years ago. We’re bringing clean air to Donora.”
The old Donora High School building still stands at the top of 4th Street in Donora, Pennsylvania, an orangish-brick reminder of a more prosperous time. It’s the kind of school millions of people of a certain age might have attended. Behind this high school lies an old football field, with goal posts at either end and remnants of four sets of stadium lights standing watch over the weeds and dirt.
To look at the field now is to gaze at history itself. A Donora native had brought me there on a recent visit. I stood at the foot of that field, standing silently and imagining. I imagined myself back at my own high school, where I served as what they called manager, a position responsible primarily for yanking grossly sweaty jerseys over the head and shoulder pads of even grosser and sweatier players.
I imagined the field lined with chalk, the now disintegrating bleachers filled with fans, and two teams lined up at a midfield scrimmage line. I could nearly hear the cheers and smell the popcorn from the refreshment stand over by the home team bench. It was mesmerizing.
This wonderful field, known locally as Legion Field, had been home to the Donora Dragons until 1970, when the Donora and Monongahela school districts were consolidated into what then became the Ringgold School District. Probably the most famous player to ever sprint down this field was the legendary Joseph “Joe Cool” Montana. Montana was unequivocally one of the greatest quarterbacks in history and a Hall of Fame pick in his first year of eligibility. And he played here, right here in Donora, on Legion Field, where all Ringgold games were played. He threw, ran, passed, called plays, and gave hundreds of cheering Donora fans what they wanted, fans who couldn’t have had any idea then just how famous he would eventually become.
He looks much younger in my imagination, not the aging but still youthful 60 he looks like today. No, in my mind he’s the rugged, tousled hair youth with a toothy grin. That’s the player I saw that day, and I smiled.
As I stood there there, with a gentleman born, raised, and living now in Donora and whose sister was a cheerleader for the team, I knew that of course Joe’s team would win.
The Monongahela River
meanders from the West Virginia coal country to the middle of Pittsburgh, where
it joins the Ohio and Allegheny rivers in a famous confluence called Three
Rivers. Along the way the river curls around this hill and that, forming elbows
and horseshoes that can make travel between towns along its banks long and
Along one of those
curves, a large horseshoe about 30 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, lies a a town
an old mill town that would largely be forgotten now were it not for an
unusually long patch of unlucky weather that led to the deaths of hundreds of
people and ultimately prompted the creation of the Clean Air Act. For it was at
that horseshoe curve that at the turn of the 20th century a wealthy Indiana
industrialist, William H. Donner, had decided to build a series
of zinc and steel plants to supply the growing needs of a flowering America.
The plants employed thousands of Donora residents,
supplied steel and wiring for hundreds of buildings, bridges, and
highways, and spewed untold tons of respiratory pollutants and irritants into
the air. In the fall of 1948 Mr. Donner’s plants gave grave notice to the town
that all was not well.
On Tuesday October 26,
the air over Donora became foggy from cool air being trapped beneath warmer air
above in what meteorologists term a temperature inversion. Normally inversions last
less than a day, but this one lasted a devastating five days. Within two days
the fog had turned into a stinging, yellowish-gray shroud so thick that many
people couldn’t drive, couldn’t even walk without stumbling. “It was so
bad,” said one resident, “that I’d accidentally step off the curb and
turn my ankle because I couldn’t see my feet.”
On the worst day, Saturday the 30th, volunteer firefighter Bill Schempp worked his way around town, feeling the way from house to house to deliver oxygen to residents with respiratory problems. Each visit lasted only a few minutes and happened the same way. Schempp placed a mask on someone struggling to breathe and turned the oxygen on for just a few seconds, what he called a “shot of oxygen.” Just as the person began to breathe more easily, Schempp then moved to the next house. The residents needed continuous oxygen but there simply weren’t enough oxygen tanks to go around. “These people were just desperate for air,” said historian Brian Charlton, curator of the Donora Smog Museum and active member of the Donora Historical Society.
So it was that Schempp, a man who had lived and worked with the people of Donora for years, who had fought fires, transported the sick and injured to local hospitals, and plucked frightened cats from raging storm drains, had to decide how much oxygen to give each resident. He had to say over and over, No, I’m sorry, as he shut off the oxygen and removed the mask. He had to listen to those desperately ill people plead with them, begging for their life, and then walk away knowing he might never see his friend alive again.
All told 20 people would die over that five-day period, at least 50 more the following month, and hundreds more over the following years. The event spurred an investigation by the Division of Industrial Hygiene, then part of the U.S. Department of Public Health and now part of the Environmental Protection Agency. After numerous states, including Pennsylvania, enacted their own clean air acts, the Government decided that clean air should be a national priority and in 1955 passed the first national air pollution law, initially called the Air Pollution Control Act of 1955 (public law 84–159), later renamed the Clean Air Act.
Today Donora residents maintain a sense of pride about the tragic events of that dark October 68 years ago. In a 2009 interview with NPR, long-time Donora resident Don Pavelko said, “We here in Donora say this episode was the beginning of the environmental movement. These folks gave their lives so we could have clean air.”