"Before there was an Environmental Protection Agency, before there was an Earth Day, before Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, there was Donora."
-- W. Michael McCabe (1998)
NEWS FLASH 1948...
In less than three days, hundreds of people fell sick, twenty-one people were dead, along with dozens of animals. Who knows how many more followed in the weeks, months and years to come. On October 31, rains finally dispersed the killer fog, but leaving the nation in shock. The dead and sick were not only from Donora but also from the neighboring communities of Webster and Sunnyside that were down wind and across the river.
The Federal, State and Local governments, along with numerous universities and scientists, conducted an investigation. Sulfur dioxide emissions from U.S. Steel's Donora Zinc Works and its American Steel & Wire plant were frequent occurrences in Donora. What made the 1948 event more severe was a temperature inversion, in which a mass of warm, stagnant air was trapped in the valley. The pollutants in the air mixed with fog to form a thick, yellowish, acrid smog that inhibited the normal process where the sun would burn off the fog. This smog hung over Donora for five days. The sulfuric acid, nitrogen dioxide, fluorine and other poisonous gases that usually dispersed into the atmosphere were caught in the inversion and continued to accumulate until rain ended the weather pattern.
The killer fog introduced America to a new term: "smog" - a combination of naturally occurring fog and industrial pollution. The 1948 Donora Smog made the world aware of the dangers of unchecked pollution. The tragic and heroic events of that October weekend helped shape the environmental movement that was to follow.
The 1948 Smog event is the foundation of the Donora Historical Society's Smog Museum. On occasion, we get inquiries from around the world as other countries in Asia and Europe face the same situations we did over 65 years ago.
Countless newspaper and magazine articles, as well as books and television programs have documented what unfolded in Donora in 1948. Because of all the industrialization that was taking place in America at that time, an event was eventually going to occur somewhere that would be the impetus for realizing the necessity for a cleaner environment. That event occurred in Donora. As tragic as it was, it did lay the groundwork for cleaner air for everyone. Our slogan "Clean Air Started Here" is one that Donora is very proud of and a testament to the people who gave their lives for this cause.
In 1950, a 21-year-old German man named Guenter Kunert took pen to paper and wrote a poem about the 1948 Smog titled, "The Song of a Small Town." For him, what took place in Donora in 1948 paralleled his struggles of surviving WWII as a young German-Jew whose relatives were exterminated in concentration camps, and what was taking shape politically in Berlin at that time. Later, this poem was translated by Penn State University languages professor Dr. Manfred Keune and presented to the Donora Historical Society, and Guenter Kunert would go on to become one of Germany's greatest contemporary writers. In 2013, as part of a Cal U of PA Honors English class titled "Digital Storytelling" that was also sponsored by the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, two freshman students (Corrine Dowlin and Rachael Fawley) used Kunert's poem and combined it with some of their own poetic flair for their video project. Click on their YouTube video titled "A Town Called Donora: A Digital Story" to view. This is as good of an example of what took place on that October weekend in 1948.
Donora and the 1948 Air Quality Crisis to view the show in its entirety (1 hour 15 minutes.)
Learn more about the 1948 Smog first hand by visiting the Smog Museum.
Click on our site's Merchandise tab to see some of the environmental books and DVD's being sold by the Society.