The Deadly Donora Smog (October 1948)

The long history of sports being played amid environmental tragedies.

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It was late October of 1948 in Donora, Pennsylvania, and a football game loomed on the horizon, even if the air was so thick you could hardly see what lay ahead of you. This was a rivalry game with nearby Monongahela—two of those suburban steel towns near Pittsburgh who had helped turn high-school football into a cultural touchstone in western Pennsylvania—and nothing was going to stop it, not even the bizarre and inexplicable fog that had rolled into town, turning the air a distinct shade of yellow, and draping the entire town in an odd shroud of stillness.

On Friday night, as much of the town turned out for a Halloween parade, the Donora Dragons practiced kickoffs amid the haze, their coach yelling “Kick” each time so that the receiving team knew when the ball was headed their way. “The sturdy people of Donora were not perturbed,” writes Devra Davis in her book When Smoke Ran Like Water. “Donora did not abandon its routines easily.”

On Saturday, the Monongahela game went off as planned, with full pep rallies and marching bands, even though most of the fans couldn’t see enough to know what was actually happening. And at that point, they didn’t know, which was why when the call came over the loudspeaker for star tight end Stanley Sawa to “Go home! Go home now,” some people presumed it was a prank.

Sawa raced home in his uniform, wending his way through Donora’s steep streets, still carrying his helmet in his hands. There, he saw a neighbor in the living room, who pointed to the bedroom, where his father—who worked at the nearby mill, lugging iron ore—lay next to a doctor. Sawa’s father had come home from work, lay down, and never woke up. By the time Stanley Sawa arrived, his father was already dead. And over the course of the next several days, nineteen more people from Donora and nearby Webster—including the father of future baseball Hall of Famer Stan Musial—had died, as well, the victims of a toxic cloud of smog from a nearby zinc plant that was, up to that point, the worst air pollution disaster in American history. Seven thousand others suffered health effects. If rain hadn’t swept through Donora on Sunday, experts say, the death toll could have been in the thousands.


“(Donora) jumpstarted the fields of environmental and public health, drew attention to the need for industrial regulation, and launched a national conversation about the effects of pollution,” wrote Lorraine Boissoneault in Smithsonian. In fact, two years after Donora, Harry Truman convened the first national air pollution conference, and fifteen years after Donora, Congress passed the first clean-air act. (U.S. Steel, which owned the factories responsible for the pollution, wound up settling lawsuits filed by residents, but never accepted blame, attributing the cloud of smog to “an act of god.”)

“But in doing so,” Boissoneault wrote, “(Donora) pitted industry against the health of humans and their environment. That battle has continued throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, with short-term economic interests often trumping long-term consequences.”


Why are Giants and 49ers playing when the air quality is 'unhealthy'? -

Seventy years after Donora, in 2018, the San Francisco 49ers and New York Giants played a Monday Night Football game in California. The air quality from nearby wildfires—the same wildfires that destroyed entire communities in northern California—was so bad that fans wore masks to the game; the NFL decided it would play on anyway. (That’s Giants receiver Odell Beckham taking a hit of oxygen, above.)

Last Sunday, the 49ers played their season opener in an empty stadium, amid a pandemic and amid a cloud of wildfire smoke that shrouded the entire West Coast. My girlfriend and I drove ten hours from Portland back to San Francisco the two days before that and never escaped the smoke; it was one fire after another after another. On Interstate 5, we passed the exit for Talent, a small town that had been literally wiped out by fire. As I write this, I’ve barely been outside since then, because the entire city of Portland is choked with the same kind of thick yellow smog the young men of Donora once played football in, with little knowledge of what the smog was or where it came from.

Except we know what it is now. We know where it’s coming from, and we know what’s causing it, and yet there is an segment of America that has become so obstinate that it seems to think we can just grit our way through the dual crises that have made it dangerous to breathe indoors among other people, or outdoors at all. There is an insistence that sports should go on as normal, and that somehow confronting the glaring problems we face—whether related to illness from a virus or illness from the air itself—somehow serves as an admission of our own weaknesses. If Donora played football amid the smog, why can’t we?

But this is not the way it was in the wake of Donora. “At the time that things like Donora happened, there was a very bipartisan approach to pollution and environmental problems,” historian Leif Fredrickson told Smithsonian. And now? Now it feels like those of us who live in the real world are screaming into a void. Now it feels like our stubborn insistence on sticking to our rituals, on refusing to consider the long-term at the expense of the short-term, has left us facing down the consequences far sooner than we ever thought we would.

On Monday night, seventy-two years after Donora, the Oakland A’s played a doubleheader in Seattle amid a cloud of smoke and particulate matter. “I'm a healthy 22-year-old,” A’s pitcher Jesus Luzardo told reporters. “I shouldn't be gasping for air or missing oxygen. I'll leave it at that.”

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