John R. West hadn’t missed a day of work for two years before he walked through his front door one Friday from his job at a local coal mine and said he just didn’t feel well.
He told his wife he had chest and head pain, and worse, he couldn’t breathe.
West, 56, wanted to lie down, but he couldn’t catch his breath when he was horizontal. He tried sitting down instead, but air eluded him in that position, too.
So West did the only thing that provided him some comfort: He knelt down on the floor and had his family drop pillows around him. Dr. Norman Golomb came twice to his Sunnyside home near Donora – at a cost of $17 – and administered four shots.
Although Golomb wrote West a prescription, he wouldn’t need it. West was dead by Sunday, Oct. 31, 1948, still in the kneeling position.
His demise was among 20 attributed to a thick smog that blanketed the valley that Halloween weekend in 1948 that has forever been linked to U.S. Steel’s zinc mill in Donora.
West’s story is among more than 100 that were told in the pages of smog lawsuits settled with U.S. Steel in 1951, only to be buried for decades in the federal archives.
The Observer-Reporter reviewed a random sampling of those files and discovered at least eight other deaths attributed to the smog that went uncounted 60 years ago.
John West was on that official roster, and his wife, Carrie, wasn’t the only mourning widow to file suit against the mill operated by American Steel & Wire Co. of New Jersey, a subsidiary of U.S. Steel.
She demanded compensation for her late husband’s future earnings (which totaled about $217 a month), reimbursement for his funeral costs ($345) and thousands of dollars in other damages.
The suit was settled for $4,500.
Despite their tales of woe, many of these lawsuits were dismissed because they were filed after the statute of limitations had passed.
Such was the case for Lena and James R. Jones. The couple lived on Book Street in the borough when Lena began suffering symptoms of asthma. She miscarried her 3-month-old fetus on Oct. 29, 1948 – the day the dense fog turned poisonous.
The family demanded $35,000. They got nothing.
But the scores of people who died or became sickened that weekend or shortly thereafter weren’t the only victims of what has come to be known as the “Donora Disaster.”
Droves of homeowners filed suit, claiming the air in their hometown prompted illness and property depreciation.
William R. Brown and his wife, Ruth, sought $35,000 from the steel company. William Brown told his attorney that his wife had become so ill that he was forced to relocate his family from the Vogel Apartments in Webster to nearby Monessen under a doctor’s order.
The family settled the suit for $1,500.
The terrain suffered every bit as much damage. John and Anna Hreno of Webster knew. They filed suit against American Steel & Wire, claiming the air had sickened Anna, and turned their once-fertile land into an acidic wasteland that no longer produced trees, shrubs and vegetables.
Their complaint also noted that over a span of two years more than 150 of their chickens and ducks perished. Henry Graff, who lived in Gallatin, sought $35,000 for the deaths of eight colts and three cows and destruction to his crops.
The Hrenos sought $30,000, but they received nothing. They, too, had waited too long to file the suit.
Enough time has passed that the people of Donora deserve to know what was in the air that hovered over the mill, especially that Halloween weekend, said Dr. Charles Stacey, a retired Ringgold School District superintendent.
“I think there are still people in town who are descendants of people who died. I think they should have an explanation,” said Stacey, 76, who was a senior at Donora High School during the smog.
He said school officials paraded boys into the health office to test their teeth and bones and submit a urine sample. No one ever told him the results of the tests or who ordered them.
For years, Stacey said, people in Donora believed that those who settled with the company did it for the money.
But after the attorney got his share, he said, they “just had enough money to buy a television.”
“They didn’t make out like bandits, not when you think of someone being deathly sick or dying.”
While there are still unanswered questions, the “Donora Disaster” was a driving force behind the nation’s first clean air laws.
That much, at least, is certain.
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