By Andy McPhee
The following is an excerpt from Donora Death Fog by Andy McPhee, published by the University of Pittsburgh Press.
Tuesday was just an average day in Donora and vicinity, when nothing particularly special happened. Nothing, that is, except a confluence of weather conditions that would place an environmental lid on the valley. No one knew then how many days the fog would last, nor how long the lid would hover over the valley. Yes, Tuesday was, almost, an average day in Donora.
Donorans woke up Wednesday morning to fog clinging to the valley like shower steam in a fanless bathroom. If they had thought about the fog for even a moment, if they had regarded it a bit more closely, they might have noticed that it was thicker than yesterday’s fog, and darker, certainly darker.
Donora’s mayor, August Zephirin Chambon, probably greeted people he met on his way to work that morning with a comment on the lingering fog. Chambon owned a moving and storage company in Monongahela and had been serving as Donora’s mayor since 1941. Born in Bessèges, a tiny community in southern France, Chambon had dark hair that he combed straight back, with no part, and a wide forehead. He had a stern look and double chin and could have passed as a Jimmy Hoffa lookalike. Chambon had been a fixture at the microphone for town events for many years, and pretty much everyone knew him.
Gladys and Bill Schempp picked walnuts in the afternoon and took a friend to Capone’s, a local Italian eatery, for dinner. They sat in one of the booths, as they typically did. Bill ordered spaghetti. He always ordered spaghetti. Gladys was more adventurous, changing her meal order each time. She never changed her order for dessert, though. She always ordered a slice of Capone’s delicious cheesecake. “She loved the cheesecake there,” said Annie Schempp. “Cheesecake was a rarity in restaurants back then.”
At some point during the day Bill had spilled a quart of paint at home, which could not have pleased his loving wife. She recorded the incident, though, as dispassionately as she did any other: “Bill spilled 1 qt paint.” Gladys recorded the facts and nothing but the facts.
Newspaper headlines Wednesday afternoon noted Dewey’s lead over Truman in eighteen out of twenty-four northeastern states. The Daily Republican announced details of the Monongahela Halloween parade, which would start at 7:15 p.m. Thursday, the night before Donora’s parade. The Monongahela High School football team, the Wildcats, were practicing “serious drills” for its “toughest assignment so far this season,” a Saturday game against the school’s rival, the Donora Dragons. The Dragons, whose colors were orange and black, had been named for the way Donora’s blast furnaces and open hearth furnaces appeared at night.
The Monongahela coach, Ben Haldy, admitted that beating the Dragons would be “awfully tough since they’re so big.” The Wildcats would face a Donora team that, per lineman, outweighed them by an average of twenty-six pounds. “Such a weight advantage could easily be the deciding factor in the game,” said the Daily Republican. As it turned out, weight wasn’t the deciding factor at all, not even close.
The fog that formed on Tuesday settled into the valley like a lazy cousin on a three-week visit. The mill’s many chimneys continued to pour forth toxins in its smoke all night, just as they had been doing every day and night for decades, fog or no. Rather than being caught on the wind and transported throughout the region, smoke from the metal factories—and the toxins contained in it—now were trapped. The valley’s walls hemmed in the fog and smoke from either side of the river. The temperature inversion blocked the release of fog and smoke upward, and the horseshoe bend in the Monongahela stymied their release to the north or south. The valley had become by Thursday a lidded mixing bowl, continually blending discharge from cars, trucks, trains, and mill chimneys into what was rapidly becoming a sickening brew of dark gray muck.
Even the dark gray color of the air was different. Normally the color of the smoke varied throughout town. Near the blast furnaces at the south end, smoke tended to look black, largely due to coal being used as fuel. In the middle of town, where the open hearth furnaces were, smoke tended to be reddish in color, from the iron ore being broken down. Finally, at the north end of town near the Zinc Works, smoke tended to have a yellowish tinge, the result of sulfur-containing fumes being given off during smelting. With a lid now over the valley the smoke began to blend into a deep, gray mélange of poisonous smoke.
Had factory smokestacks been taller than 250 feet, the approximate height of the lowest level of the inversion layer, the effluents coming from them might have spewed into the atmosphere, where they would have become diluted and dissipated over the region. The tallest smokestacks in Donora, though, were just 150 feet high. Without wind, even a slight breeze, there could be no upward movement of smoke from the plants. So smoke, soot, dust, and toxic gases from the plants, trains, and vehicular traffic in the valley continued to mix into the fog.
It seems utterly unlikely that mill owners didn’t know how important stack height was to the surrounding communities and, more important, their bottom line. A smelter operator in Montana, the Anaconda Company, constructed a three-hundred-foot stack at its Washoe copper smelter in 1902. Farmers and ranchers near the smelter found that they were losing crops and livestock due, they claimed, to “smelter fumes and poisonous ingredients” contained therein. Fred J. Bliss, on behalf of area residents, sued Anaconda for damages.
Although Bliss, not surprisingly, lost his claim, Anaconda leaders took the lesson to heart, and in 1917 the company removed the smaller stack and built in its place a stack that reached 585 feet into the air, a chimney famously known as the Anaconda Stack. Numerous other smelters at the time also constructed smokestacks more than three hundred feet high, but owners of the zinc smelter in Donora chose otherwise. Andrew Mellon’s key lieutenants must have known about the trend toward higher stacks; almost certainly Donora’s mill officials did. Why they chose to ignore that trend is unknown, but the decision cost Donora dearly.
Bernardo Di Sanza, track foreman for Donora Southern Railroad, began feeling unwell around nine o’clock Thursday night at his home. He and his wife, Liberata, lived at 337 Third Street, across from a small wooded area known now as Cascade Park. The Di Sanza house was long and narrow, with two bedrooms and one bathroom. Di Sanza was a healthy, happy, some would even say jolly man and could be found nearly always smiling and laughing, his now-gray mustache bobbing up and down.
Tonight was different. Tonight he was not smiling or laughing. He was coughing a great deal and had a hard time breathing. He was never sick, not ever, so this was something that neither he nor his wife were accustomed to. He fell asleep that night hoping he would feel better in the morning.
The congealing fog in nearby Donora didn’t stop fans of the Monongahela Wildcats from buying tickets to the game on Saturday. There was already a line at the Pulaski News Store in downtown Monongahela when 745 tickets went on sale at two o’clock. By four o’clock every ticket had been sold. It seemed that nobody wanted to miss the big game.
Donora was rife with football fever as well. Donorans loved their sports, especially football and baseball. Stan “The Man” Musial by 1948 had become a huge star in baseball and had just finished a tremendous season, hitting a career-high thirty-nine home runs. Musial finished first in voting that year for the National League’s Most Valuable Player award, well ahead of standout pitcher Johnny Sain, famed shortstop Harold Henry “Pee Wee” Reese, and slugger Ralph Kiner, who hit “only” forty home runs in 1948. (He had hit fifty-one the year before and would hit fifty-four the year after, becoming the first National Leaguer to hit more than fifty home runs in a season twice.) Donora would later produce two more baseball legends, Ken Griffey Sr., whose father worked for a time at American Steel & Wire, and Senior’s son, Ken Griffey Jr. The two Griffeys would become the first father-son duo to play professional baseball on the same team at the same time.
Donora was equally proud of its football heritage. The Dragons were then known as a challenging team to beat, year in and year out. The team had played in the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League, composed of about 160 schools. Donora had won back-to-back championships in 1944 and 1945, outscoring their opponents by a stunning 282 points in 1944 and by 284 in 1945. Both teams featured all-state fullback Daniel “Deacon Dan” Towler, arguably the greatest football player ever to come out of Donora. Towler was picked up by the Los Angeles Rams and, together with such stars as Norm Van Brocklin and Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch, played an integral role in the Rams’ powerful running and passing offense. Towler would score the game-winning touchdown in 1951’s World Championship game, the precursor to today’s Super Bowl, and would be selected for the All-Star team three years in a row.
Other Donora football virtuosos included quarterback Arnold “Pope” Galiffa, whose photo graced the May 2, 1949, cover of Life magazine; Galiffa’s favorite running back, Roscoe Ross; and Lou “Bimbo” Cecconi, another quarterback who would play both football and basketball at the University of Pittsburgh. So many outstanding athletes came from Donora that the town would, in the late 1940s, begin calling itself “Home of Champions.”
Donorans on the Thursday before Halloween must have felt supremely confident that the Dragons would win such an important game, and hundreds were planning to attend. If any fans developed a cough in the days leading up to the game, they probably would have thought they were coming down with a cold. Or perhaps they would have thought they were allergic to some autumn pollen. If, however, they had blamed the fog for their woes, they would have been correct. Toxins continued to spill into the air and become more concentrated with each passing hour. People were beginning to feel the effects.
Andy McPhee is the author of four books for young adults and the author or editor of more than 750 health and life sciences articles. Over his career, he worked as a registered nurse for twenty-five years before transitioning to publishing, most recently at F. A. Davis, a nursing and allied healthcare educational publisher. He lives in Doylestown, PA.