Andy McPhee admits the idea for his latest book actually came while watching the Netflix series, “The Crown.”
In season one, episode four, titled “An Act of God,” the borough of Donora is referenced as a dense fog cripples London. Of course, the reference is made due to the Donora Smog of 1948 that killed 21 people and caused respiratory problems for 6,000 of the borough’s 14,000 residents.
“I’m thinking, ‘how have I not ever heard of this before?’” McPhee said. “I was looking for a book to write anyway. I started looking into it, and the more I looked at it, the more checkmarks it hit for my own list.”
The result is “Donora Death Fog: Clean Air and the Tragedy of a Pennsylvania Mill Town,” which tells the story of those six fateful days in Donora and how they led to the nation’s first clean air act in 1955.
“Death Fog” also details how wealthy industrialists built the mills to supply an ever-growing America, how the town’s residents ignored the danger of the mills’ emissions and how the gradual closing of the mills took a toll on the area.
McPhee, of Doylestown, is the author of three books for young adults and the author or editor of more than 750 health and life science articles. He was a registered nurse for 25 years before transitioning to publishing.
He obviously learned quite a bit about the incident while working on the book, but something stood out to him.
“People who are still around today, who were kids when this happened and remembered it, were very reluctant to blame the mills,” McPhee said. “That reluctance permeated that entire valley for a great many years and really still does. Their livelihood depended completely on those mills, so to put them down just didn’t feel right in their hearts.”
McPhee said he was able to talk to a “fair number” of people who were witnesses to the smog event.
“Not as many as I would have liked,” he admitted. “Some people just didn’t want to talk. Several have since passed on. The historical society people were enormously helpful.”
McPhee was amazed at how life continued to proceed. The Halloween parade occurred just days after the smog began covering Donora’s skies.
“You couldn’t see the other side of the street,” McPhee said. “Those streets aren’t very wide, and you could just kind of make out forms. Immediately after the parade, everybody left. Streets were clear.”
This was followed by a football game the next day between Donora and Monongahela high schools.
“Some people claim to this day that they could see everything,” McPhee said. “The reporters who saw the game didn’t seem to have any trouble because they didn’t mention the smog. Many other people said they couldn’t even see the ball and could barely see the players on the field. The recollections are vastly different, and I think it depended on the level of empathy a person had for the mills. The recollections are fascinating to me.”
McPhee was able to learn something about the majority of those who were fatalities of the smog, including the fact that there were five deaths in less than 3 1/2 hours a few days after the pollution first hit.
There is something McPhee hopes readers take away from “Death Fog.”
“I hope they find a greater understanding and a greater empathy for immigrants, the immigrants who made this country and what they went through,” he said. “The mills were run mostly on immigrant help. It was an incredible hodgepodge of people from a wide variety of cultures and ethnicities working together. It really was a center of immigration in a great many ways. To understand what these people went through putting their lives at stake every day is really quite amazing.”
The book is scheduled to launch on March 28 and will be available through the University of Pittsburgh, Amazon and bookstores. McPhee plans to come to the area for appearances at bookstores around publication time, and there will be some marketing tie-ins to the 75th anniversary of the incident in October.
“In Donora, people don’t talk about that smog,” he said. “That was the feeling for years. In the last 20 years or so, the historical society has done a great job of turning that around.”
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