Donora's deadly smog of 1948 to be featured in a documentary

| Thursday, Nov. 22, 2012, 8:52 p.m.

The infamous event in Donora's history that led to national air quality reform will once again be the subject of a documentary.

A crew from Pioneer Productions, based in London, recently spent a week in the Mon Valley doing research about the deadly smog that blanketed Donora between Oct. 26 and 31, 1948. Researcher Peter Barker said they are working on a documentary for the Weather Channel, called “Weather that Changed the World.”

According to the company's website, Pioneer Productions is one of the United Kingdom's most successful independent production companies. The company has developed documentaries for such networks as Discovery, PBS, National Geographic Channel, History, and the Travel Channel.

Barker, and his partner, David Firstbrook, both of London, visited the borough on Halloween — a cold, rainy day that was likely similar to what Donorans may have experienced that same day in 1948, minus the thick layer of smog.

They began their tour at the Donora Smog Museum, which opened in October 2008 at the corner of Seventh Street and McKean Avenue.

Don Pavelko, and his wife, DeAnne, along with a team of residents, worked to open the museum as a place to showcase the historic items linked to the Donora smog that were being held by the borough's historical society. The smog museum continues to thrive today thanks to a group of dedicated volunteers.

Out-of-towners, especially, are impressed with the museum's wealth of information and memorabilia, Pavelko said.

“This is my first time in the Pittsburgh area, and this town seems great.” said Barker. “The museum is amazing.”

The Donora Smog Museum gives visitors a look at what life when a blanket of dense, cold valley air above Donora kept smoke from the American Steel and Wire Company's Zinc Works from escaping the community.

As the days passed, the borough became shrouded in toxic smog.

Pollution from the event caused the deaths of 20 people and more than 7,000 were hospitalized or became ill.

The national impact became evident in 1949, when Pennsylvania lawmakers formed the Division of Air Pollution Control to study the disaster.

The Legislature passed a clean streams law in 1965 and clean air regulations the following year.

In 1970, the national government passed the Clean Air Act along with the Environmental Bill of Rights, which stated each American has a right to clean air.

Retelling that story in the Mid-Mon Valley is the reason behind the Donora Smog Museum.

Many television documentaries have been made about the smog. In 2009, it was featured on the Weather Channel series, “When Weather Changed History.”

The smog museum houses an array of items, from high school yearbooks and newspaper articles about the smog to the last hunk of zinc produced at the American Steel and Wire Company's Zinc Works.

An aerial photograph of Donora taken for the American Steel & Wire Co. in September 1941 is on display at the museum.

It shows how smoke from the zinc plant had made Donora's hillsides barren in places.

The museum contains photographs of some of the players that took part in the Donora and Monongahela high school football game during the smog.

A Halloween parade still went on in the downtown section during the smog.

Some visitors might even get firsthand accounts from smog survivors, including Edith Jericho.

Jericho, who works part-time at the museum, was just 12-years-old when the smog covered Donora. She remembers her father, James Troy, making the walk every day from Webster to Donora to work at the zinc plant with a bandanna covering his nose and mouth. At that time, the zinc plant employed about 5,000 workers, when the borough's population was thriving with 13,000.

“It was always foggy, or at least that's what we thought,” Jericho said. “We just got used to it.”

She said she didn't realize they were breathing in toxic air until one of her neighbors, Emma Hobbs, died from the pollution.

“It's something I'll never forget,” she said.

All these years later, Donora residents like Jericho and Pavelko and others at the museum are always willing to share their knowledge about the smog.

“After all these years, it's still an important part of history,” Pavelko said.

Barker said they also planned on interviewing lifelong Donora resident Dr. Charles Stacey, a retired superintendent at Ringgold School District, who has been an important member of the smog committee, as well as Donora native Dr. Devra Davis, an epidemiologist and author of “When Smoke Ran Like Water,” which chronicles pollution's health effects.

The documentary will be released next year.

Stacy Wolford is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-684-2640 or at

Subscribe today! Click here for our subscription offers.


Show commenting policy