When Did Death Fog Victims Perish?

Updated with new information 11/10/2018

Ivan Ceh came from Rieka, 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.

Jane Kirkwood, known by everyone as Jeanie, hailed from Wishaw, Scotland, a scraggly suburb of Glasgow, emigrating at age 39 in 1911. A widow, Jeanie also died at her home, at 121 Ida Avenue, in the middle of Donora’s famed Cement City.

Ceh and Kirkwood were the first Donorans to die in the Donora Death Fog of 1948. At least 18 more followed, most of them the same night. Ceh died at 1:30 AM from sudden heart failure, Jeanie at 2:00 AM of asthma. Both of them died on the deadliest day of the smog, Saturday, October 30, 1948.

They most likely did not die at exactly those times, though. Chaos during the smog made more specific determinations all but impossible. Hundreds of residents that weekend experienced severe breathing problems, and from early Saturday morning to early Sunday morning, doctors, nurses, police officers, firefighters, and undertakers worked around the clock to deal with the sick, dying, and dead. The local hospital, Charleroi-Monessen Hospital, was inundated with patients from Donora. Physicians and coroners working in such conditions would have used the closest approximation possible for a time of death.

CharleroiMonessenHospital
Vintage photo of Charleroi-Monessen Hospital

Times of Death

The graphics below show the official times of death for each victim, as shown on the death certificate.

VictimDeathsOnClock
Donora smog deaths from noon Saturday to last confirmed death on November 8

Criteria for Timetable of Deaths

The smog killed far more people than the 20 shown above. Thousands were sickened during the smog, and untold hundreds are reported to have died later as a result of the smog’s lingering effects. Local, state, and federal agencies at the time used their own criteria for determining the official list of victims. They generally used an end-date of Sunday, October 31.

Historians at the Donora Historical Society (DHS), however, have used other criteria for identifying the last death. They generally have been more flexible than the Government and have listed people who died during or shortly after the smog. I have chosen to use DHS’s approach.

Here are my criteria for whether a person should be included in the list of victims:

The person’s death must be directly associated with the smog, through either a physician’s or coroner’s reported cause of death or through contemporaneous, reasonably reliable third-person reports.

The death certificate, when available, must indicate some kind of cardiopulmonary disorder as a primary or secondary cause of death. Typical disorders for an event like the Donora smog would include asthma, pneumonia, heart attack,  heart failure (sometimes called “cardiac asthma”), and so forth.

The person must have died either during the smog (October 26 through the afternoon of October 31) or within a reasonably short time thereafter.

If a person died after the afternoon of October 31, the death certificate must indicate that the person died as a result of the smog, or alternately, by a condition that could reasonably be considered to have been smog-related.

Individuals living outside Donora, Webster, and their immediate environs will not be considered unless it can be determined with a high degree of confidence that the person spent a significant amount of time in Donora or Webster during the smog even though they might have lived elsewhere. Those individuals must also meet the previous criteria.

The following individuals are sometimes listed as victims, but as far as I have been able to determine they were not: Clifford DeVore, George Hvizdak (Weisdack), Ruth Jones, John Poklemba, Mary Rozik, and Alice Ward. They died too long after the event to qualify. I have also confirmed that Steve Faulchak, sometimes listed as being a victim, did not die in or from the smog.

Do You Know Any of These Donora Smog Victims?

I need help. I’m currently working on a book about the Donora smog event of 1948, and I want very much to present the most accurate list of the smog victims ever published. Three people are sometimes listed as having perished in smog, but I believe they were listed in error. I have identified the individuals I believe were the primary victims, those who died during the smog or very shortly thereafter.

However, just in case, might you or someone you know be able to provide any insight into any of them?

  1. Steve Faulchak
    I haven’t been able to find much of anything on anyone named Faulchak having anything to do with Donora. I believe the spelling of the last name is inaccurate, but even when I try numerous alternatives I come up empty. If anyone knows who this might have been, please do let me know.
  2. Ruth Jones
    I have found a variety of Ruth Joneses who lived in or around Donora in the 1940s. For instance, there was a Ruth Jones who was born in February 1921, died January 11, 1949, and is buried in Monongahela Cemetery. That might be the one I’m looking for, but I’ve also found a Ruth F. Jones from West Eagle, PA, who was born possibly March 13, 1902, or possibly sometime in 1905. She died April 25, 1949, and is buried in West Newton Cemetery. If you have information on either of these people, or other Ruth Joneses from the area who might have been a smog victim, please let me know.
  3. Alice Ward
    As you might imagine, there have been many Alice Wards in Pennsylvania, several in Western PA. The only Alice Ward who seems to fit the Donora smog scenario, however, is someone born September 1, 1879, in Wales, with the apparent maiden name of Catherine Dyson. She was married to Thomas Jones, died at Charleroi-Monessen Hospital on March 26, 1949, and is buried in Monongahela Cemetery. If you can provide more information on this Alice Ward or any other who might have been connected to the smog, please let me know.

I much appreciate any help anyone can provide to shore up a complete, accurate list of Donora smog victims.

Please email me at atmcphee@gmail.com or leave a comment below.

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The Life and Death of a Smog Victim

Susan Gnora, known by most as Susie, got up that morning and ironed. What she ironed is unknown, though most likely she ironed her husband’s white work shirts. Perhaps she ironed shirts most mornings, like other Donora wives whose husbands worked at one of the mills along the Monongahela River. That particular morning, Friday, October 29, 1948, was extremely foggy. Looking back we recognize the 29th as the fourth day of what we now call the Donora Death Fog, but at the time it was just another foggy day in Donora.

Susan was having trouble breathing that morning, but she kept ironing nonetheless. She also had a headache that wouldn’t go away. She had never had a health problem before, aside from a twisted ankle when she was young, and she had no history of asthma or other lung disease. Yet on this foggy day a woman who had survived the births of 14 children struggled for breath. Her family gathered at her home throughout the day. Susan’s husband John worked all day at a coal mine in Monessen and didn’t get home until about five o’clock. He found his wife painfully short of breath. She told him, “I no feel good.”

Neither Susan nor John spoke English well. John couldn’t read nor write, and in all likelihood Susan couldn’t either. John depended on his energetic wife for everything, from fixing his lunch everyday to using his every-two-week paycheck to manage the family’s finances. She paid all the bills, and when one of her children needed cash, she gave them whatever the couple could afford.

Throughout the day Friday Susan had found herself so weak that she couldn’t complete even the simplest tasks. Her alarming weakness stemmed partly from the lack of oxygen in the air and partly from the dangerous effects of pollutants she had been breathing. The air in Donora that week had become increasingly thick with noxious gases, including carbon monoxide, ozone, and sulfur dioxide, all menacing gases in high concentrations.

Coal Burning Power Plant

The air also contained tiny particles, or nanoparticles, of such metals as zinc, lead, and cadmium. Those nanoparticles had been blown into the air from the steel and zinc mills along the river, particles that joined the coal dust already in Susan’s home from the family’s coal-fired Heatrola. The coal dust, plus the various types of nanoparticles in the Donora air, were breathed in not just by Susan but by everyone else who entered the house or who lived in Donora. The nanoparticles found their way into the deepest parts of the lungs and then into the tiny air sacs, or alveoli, there. Alveoli allow inhaled oxygen to pass into the bloodstream and carbon dioxide in the bloodstream to be exhaled.

When a person is at rest, about ten ounces of oxygen, and about the same amount of carbon dioxide, pass into and out of the bloodstream through the alveoli every minute. During exercise that amount can double. In Donora that horrible weekend, those ten ounces or so contained an unhealthy amount of noxious gases and harmful nanoparticles. On entering the lungs, all those pollutants caused an inflammation of the alveoli, which prevented the normal amount of oxygen from passing into the bloodstream and the normal amount of carbon dioxide from passing out through the lungs.

pulmonarygasexchange

The lack of oxygen in the blood is most likely what caused Susan to become weak, and a buildup of carbon dioxide in the blood most likely prompted her headache. Other cells in the body also became inflamed and couldn’t perform their own particular functions as well as they should have. As a result Susan’s heart rate increased, trying to push more oxygen to the brain and other organs that needed it most. Her kidneys couldn’t get rid of as much waste as they should have, and so poisons began building up in her bloodstream. All of her body’s energy was being used to keep her heart, brain, and lungs working, and unless Susan was taken to a smog-free area right then, and given oxygen, she would die.

Her family had no idea how serious her condition was, though, until it was too late. Her son, George, said, “I didn’t realize it was that bad. I thought it was just one of those things that would blow over.”

Susan spent most of Friday night sitting on the edge of the bed, her head bent to her chest, her breathing becoming ever more labored. Speaking became too difficult, and sleep was out of the question. Her daughter, Elizabeth, called every Donora physician in the phone book, but they were all busy, out on house calls. She was finally able to reach Dr. William Rongaus, who arrived sometime between 9:30 PM and midnight. Rongaus drove to the Gnora home in extraordinarily thick, black fog. He gave Susan “a hypodermic,” probably epinephrine, to help open Susan’s airways and improve her breathing. He also left a few pills, most likely theophylline, a drug used to treat asthma and other breathing conditions. Susan didn’t want any of the pills, and the prescription Rongaus left behind was never filled.

Old glass syringe with brass hub needle

When Rongaus left the Gnora home, Susan’s son-in-law, Rudolph Crafton, told him, “Any man who would drive a car [in that fog] would have to be a magician.” To which Rongaus replied, “I’ll manage somehow.”

Susan’s condition worsened overnight, and by 8:30 the following morning, Susan Gnora, a 62-year-old, five-foot, previously healthy, hard-working, Hungarian housewife “a little on the plump side,” with only a fourth-grade education, was dead. Susan became the ninth person to die from the smog. At least ten more souls would perish before rain and a bit of wind arrived that Sunday morning to clear away the fog and let the people of Donora breathe again.

Who Died in Donora’s Deadly Smog?

Edited 1/2/18

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.

DHSListofVictimsPlaque
List of victims (some incorrect) on a plaque in Donora

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.)

thomasshortdeathcertsection

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 atmcphee@gmail.com. I would be most appreciative.

Victims

  1. Ivan Ceh
  2. Barbara Chinchar
  3. Taylor Circle
  4. John C. Cunningham
  5. Bernardo Di Sanza
  6. Michael Dorincz
  7. William Gardner
  8. Susan Gnora
  9. Milton Elmer Hall
  10. Emma Hobbs
  11. Ignace Hollowiti
  12. Jane (Jeanie) L. Kirkwood
  13. Marcel Kraska
  14. Andrew Odelga
  15. Ida Orr (not Ore)
  16. Thomas Amos Short
  17. Peter Starcovich
  18. Perry Stevens
  19. Sawka Trubolis
  20. John West

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
  • Steve Faulchak
  • Ruth Jones
  • Alice Ward

Post updated May 6, 2019