Inside the factories zinc fumes flushed out of horizontal retorts, and spread through the factories as an eerie blue powder.
By Nick Ripatrazone
Halloween parades and high school football are late October rituals for residents of Donora, Pennsylvania, a mill town on the Monongahela River—now, and back in 1948. Donorans were used to daily fog, but the past few windless days had caused the darkness to linger. Residents flocked to the parade to see neighborhood children compete for best costume, although most attendees “tied handkerchiefs over their mouth and nose,” writes Andy McPhee in Donora Death Fog. The scene was a little too eerie – “It was as if the people riding in cars, trucks, and floats were foggy apparitions, actors behind a frosted scrim.”
Despite little visibility, the football game also went on that weekend—a ground battle against rival Monongahela. “You could see them punt the ball, hear them kick it, but it would disappear into the cloud,” one attendee said. The Donora Dragons lost that day. Before the team became the Dragons, they were known as the “Orange and Black.” The colors were easy for residents to imagine – each night the town’s blast furnaces and open hearth furnaces flamed a sharp orange against the dark sky.
The titular fog doesn’t arrive until halfway into McPhee’s new book, and for good reason. Donora Death Fog is exactly the type of regional history that university presses should be publishing – well-researched, dramatic accounts of events that require local expertise. The Donora Fog of 1948 was national news, but save for a handful of journalists, most “covered the smog as something that happened to a town, rather than to its people.” McPhee remedies that problem through extensive interviews and recreation of events, and reveals that the fog that suffocated the town was an inevitable tragedy.
William Donner and Andrew Mellon, through the Union Improvement Company, founded the town of Donora at the turn of the 20th century. A newspaper advertisement for the proposed town boasted that the “town will be modern in every respect, paved, sewered, and in fact everything done to make it a healthful and desirable place to live.” In three years, the town was full of “a thousand homes and six thousand people.”
Workers were needed for the various mills in town, including wire, rod, nail, blooming, and fence-binding mills. McPhee notes that the steel from the wire and rod mills were used “in bridges, roadways, buildings” and barbed wire. Nails produced by the mills included rail spikes, “which affix railroad tracks to wooden ties.”
These mills were completed and in use before home construction was finished. A decade later, the Donora Zinc Works opened. From the start, smelter workers were besieged by a “cannonade of toxins.” McPhee’s list includes sulfur dioxide and trioxide, carbon monoxide and dioxide, cadmium sulfide, cadmium oxide, lead sulfate, and arsenic. Toxins circulated inside the factory or were pumped out through smokestacks, billowing through the town (one local resident complained in a letter to the governor that pollutant expelled from the mills “eats the paint off houses.” She added: “I would not want men to lose their jobs, but your life is more precious than your job”). Inside the factories zinc fumes flushed out of horizontal retorts, and spread through the factories as an eerie blue powder. “None of those toxins were harmless,” McPhee writes, “and in all probability everyone—from common laborers to managers to business owners—knew it.” Smelter workers were wracked with flu-like symptoms that would dissipate during the weekend, only to return with the start of the work week. “Monday morning fever” was seen as an unfortunate, yet inevitable, result of the job.
In nearby Webster, their zinc smelter churned “nearly 30,000 pounds of zinc, 400 pounds of lead, and 332 pounds of cadmium were released into the air each day.” The toxins choked grass and other growth. Photos document children playing in the bare land, a desert of “weeds, dirt, dust, soot, mud, and rocks.” The lace curtains that covered the windows of most homes in Webster would regularly blacken. Residents followed a weekly cleaning regimen that included taking down the curtains, washing and starching them, and then stretching the material taut to dry, followed by ironing.
McPhee’s well-chosen details demonstrate that inconvenience, discomfort, and illness were a way of life in Donora and surrounding towns. Yet he is careful to show that the hardscrabble way of life wasn’t merely the result of stubborn residents. Someone was profiting from this dangerous wife of life. McPhee cites a Bureau of Mines report that considered Pennsylvania blast furnace accidents in a single year, from July 1, 1906, to June 30, 1907 – 1,339 injuries and 33 deaths. No wonder, then, that after World War I, many American-born and English-speaking immigrant workers from northern Europe refused these risky jobs—leaving them to immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. These workers could often not speak or understand English, and yet apparently worker safety measures at the mills were solely English language signs “posted at entry gates and scattered around the mill site.” One sign read “‘I forgot’ has never shown profit for either worker or company.” McPhee observes: “Those kinds of signs clearly put the responsibility for a safe work environment on the workers themselves.”
Donora Death Fog sounds like the title of a schlocky B film from the 1950s—some William Castle production with animated corpses and spine-latching parasites. McPhee inherits a challenge with this material. The five days of lingering fog feels not merely taken from a horror film, but feels like a pastiche of horror: an amorphous monster of the sky. It almost seems as if the fog was too bad to be true.
McPhee’s prose in the book is punchy without being pulpy. Most of his figurative language lands well. “Donorans woke up Wednesday morning to fog clinging to the valley like shower steam in a fanless bathroom.” (There is only the occasional misfire: “The fog that formed on Tuesday settled into the valley like a lazy cousin on a three-week visit.”). He dramatically describes the chaotic scene at nearby Charleroi-Monessen Hospital – “Rooms and hallways filled with the sound of dry, hacking coughs and the high-pitched whistling of wheezes, a cantata of imperiled voices muffled only by oxygen masks and plastic oxygen tents. A mixture of odors struck everyone coming into the hospital, alcohol and acetone, ash and soot, cigars and cigarettes, a host of other odors too faint or unfamiliar to identify.”
A temperature inversion in the region started the problem. “Rather than being caught on the wind and transported throughout the region,” McPhee describes, “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.” Smokestacks in Donora were a paltry 150 feet high, while smokestacks at mills in other locations were substantially taller. McPhee is clear that “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.”
Toxins had been spreading and sifting over the region for years, but the tight fog now kept the “smoke, soot, dust, and toxic gases from the plants, trains, and vehicular traffic in the valley” in place—and the human toll was immediate. McPhee tells of two women who were getting their children ready for school, and “found black, sooty mucus running from each child’s nose.” Contemporary readers will be surprised to read that “Sooty mucus was nothing new to children in Donora. Betty’s and May’s kids often came home from school with black nostrils and black at the corners of their mouth from all the soot and dust in the air.” Yet having those markings in the morning was a surprise, and portended that worse would come.
McPhee, as promised in his preface, focuses on eyewitness accounts—making Donora Death Fog an invaluable document of this nightmarish event. Bill Schempp, a volunteer firefighter, “decided it was too foggy to drive his car, so he walked around town, feeling his way along buildings, fences, signposts, anything he came across. There were times he had to crawl along the road to feel his way forward.” Others, especially older citizens, like John R. West, “a coal miner for forty years,” became sick Friday afternoon. He had a terrible headache, chest pain, and had trouble breathing. West could neither lie flat or sit up without struggling to breathe, so he knelt on the floor, surrounded by pillows. He died in that position two days later.
On his death certificate, West’s death was due to “abnormal weather conditions.” McPhee notes that West’s physician was “the first to ascribe a death specifically to the smog.” It certainly was smog, and not nearly a fog—although local doctors were “loathe to use” the term, for “doing so might imply that the mills were to blame for people becoming sick. One just didn’t blame the mills for anything. One only praised them.” In fact, Donora Death Fog makes clear that the mills weren’t merely a source of jobs and revenue for the town—they were preternaturally Donoran, a creation myth turned identity.
By the time rain eased the fog on Halloween, “investigators would determine that of the approximately 13,000 residents of Donora and 1,000 residents of Webster, roughly 6,000 had been sickened by the smog.”
Newly-elected president Harry S. Truman became involved with the aftermath. He authorized the United States Technical Conference on Air Pollution, at the time a novel event. Although Truman did not attend, his prepared remarks were read by Oscar L. Chapman, Secretary of the Interior, at the opening of the conference at 10 a.m. at the Wardman-Park Hotel in Washington, “With the increasing industrialization of the United States, contamination of the air around us has become a serious problem, affecting all segments of our population. 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. The health hazards arising from air pollution, as shown by the Donora disaster, are especially important. We need to find out all we can about the relationship between air contaminants and illness.”
On March 5, 2023, over a month after a Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that the train company –at the EPA’s request –would “provide additional financial assistance” to those “within a mile of the derailment site,” including “temporary lodging, travel, food, clothing, and other necessities.” Residents have complained of headaches, sore throats, and labored breathing since the derailment –which released toxins into the air and waterways.
A few days after the derailment, authorities conducted a controlled burn of several train cars that contained vinyl chloride. As noted in an article by veteran Ohio reporter Mary Ann Greier, “According to Norfolk Southern, the pressure relief valves had stopped working on some of the cars, putting them at risk of exploding.”
An hour and a half northwest of Donora, a gray and black plume swirled into the sky above, its base a sparkling mixture of white and red as the flames continued. The smoke rose and rose before dissipating into the sky. It was a somewhat cloudy day, but there was no fog.
Nick Ripatrazone’s most recent books include Longing for an Absent God and Digital Communion, both from Fortress Press. He has written for Rolling Stone, GQ, Esquire, and The Atlantic, and is the Culture Editor for Image Journal.