Site of deadly smog opens a museum

When the killer smog rolled into town here in October 1948, 12-year-old Joann Crow thought it was an adventure.

“Dad couldn't drive us to school because it was so hard to see,” said Crow, now 72. “He had to walk us to school that Wednesday with a flashlight, which we thought was fun.”

But the next day, Thursday, Oct. 28, her grandmother, Susan Gnora, 62, started coughing and experiencing chest pains. It was the same for a lot of older residents of this Monongahela River valley mill town 24 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.

“She died the next day. That's when we all got worried,” said Crow, a retired child care worker. “They tried to blame it on asthma. But we knew that wasn't true. She was always so strong. It was that smog from the mills.”

By the time a rain on Oct. 31 cleared the air, 20 people in Donora had died, and nearly half the town became ill in one of the worst air pollution disasters in the nation's history.

After decades of largely remaining silent about the horrors of that week, Donora residents began to open up about it in recent years, placing a historical marker in town on the 50th anniversary.

Over the past two weeks, they marked the 60th anniversary with memorials for the families of those who died, discussions with experts about the lessons learned, and the opening of the Donora Smog Museum, with the slogan “Clean Air Started Here.”

“It was the first time that people really understood that a lot of air pollution in a short period of time could kill people,” said Dr. Devra Davis, director of the Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh and author of “When Smoke Ran Like Water,” about air pollution. She is also a Donora native who was 2 at the time of the smog.

The Donora smog gained national attention and helped lead to some of the first local and state pollution control laws, and, eventually, the 1970 federal Clean Air Act.