Friday, April 20, 2012

The Fog

Berton Roueché (1910–1994)
From American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau

Photograph taken at noon on October 29, 1948, in Donora, Pennsylvania. Courtesy NOAA Ocean Service Education.
“Before there was an Environmental Protection Agency, before there was an Earth Day, before Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, there was Donora.”
—W. Michael McCabe, Regional Administrator, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1998
On a Sunday evening at the end of October 1948, famed radio broadcaster Walter Winchell took to the airwaves and alerted the nation to an emergency then happening in Donora, Pennsylvania. An impenetrable, toxic, and ultimately lethal fog had blanketed the steel mill center during the previous week and had silently infected its residents. Communication within the darkened town (which had no radio station, no hospital, eight doctors, two full-time firefighters, and three undertakers) was so bad that many of the 12,300 residents didn’t realize the extent of the tragedy until they began hearing from relatives and friends living outside the region who called in a panic. Within a few hours after Winchell’s broadcast, the chief counsel for American Steel and Wire, fearing the inevitable aftermath, reached the superintendent of the zinc works and told him to shut down the furnaces.

The most famous account of the Donora incident is “The Fog,” written two years later for The New Yorker by Berton Roueché, who remains one of the most esteemed writers of medical thrillers, a genre he practically reinvented during his fifty-year career. Roueché’s articles combined elements of several popular genres—true crime, detective fiction, suspense and horror—yet explained and explored with admirable accuracy the minutiae of science. His various awards reflect this balance: “The Fog” itself would end up being one of two pieces that together earned the 1950 Albert Lasker Medical Journalism Award, and his 1953 collection Eleven Blue Men, and Other Narratives of Medical Detection (which included “The Fog”) would garner a Raven Award, given for “outstanding achievement in the mystery field outside the realm of creative writing” by the Mystery Writers of America.

Even today, Roueché’s books continue to inspire and thrill readers and authors. In a 2006 interview, the novelist Kaye Gibbons listed Eleven Blue Men as one of her ten favorite books, which “I reread every time I need to be reminded of the sheer joy possible in language and character. I like to think of him as the progenitor of CSI and give his books to friends whenever I find them in print.” And the television series House was in part inspired by Roueché’s works, according to the show’s producer David Shore.

As for Donora: there is a sequel to Roueché’s account. The American Steel and Wire Company paid $235,000 as an out-of-court settlement for 130 lawsuits that had originally requested a total of $4,643,000 in damages. According to a recent article in The New York Times, the company continued to insist that the catastrophe “was ‘an act of God,’ and never admitted any responsibility. . . . By the time legal fees were taken out and the money was spread among the hundreds of victims,” the  compensation was meager. As the relative of one survivor recalled, “My aunt said she had enough left to buy a TV.”

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The Monongahela River rises in the middle Alleghenies and seeps for a hundred and twenty-eight miles through the iron and bituminous-coal fields of northeastern West Virginia and southwestern Pennsylvania to Pittsburgh. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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