When Smoke Ran Like Water

This is my personal blog entry and not a news story. As such, it does not represent the opinion of the station, my family nor anyone but me.

Several years ago, I was working on a story involving a group of Concerned Citizens of Marietta about the emissions from an area plant. I don't recall how the name "Denora, PA" came to my attention, but I do recall doing a search for information, and not finding a lot.

However it was cited in a book titled "When Smoke Ran Like Water" by Devra Davis. It is available on Amazon.com and on ebay. But I also found that to my delight, the book on the topic was shelved at the Parkersburg Public Library Main Branch.

A quick trip to the library confirmed that it was checked in, but not available. I walked to the spot on the shelf where the book should be filed, and found it was missing. Disappointed, I scanned the shelf nearby, and saw other books on the atmosphere nearby, but nothing by Devra Davis.

As I began to walk away, a white spine of a book caught my eye, and I looked twice. There is was, the book I was seeking, but mis-filed about three feet away on the library shelves. No indication of why or how it got there. I checked it out.

I began to read the book that night, and discovered a very engaging explanation of how steel, iron and zinc smelting are related and how the industry was the lifeblood of Denora in the Monongahela River valley.

But the author also explained where she came from, her family, the culture, the town, the people and the absolute acceptance that the smoke and plumes that came from the plants and industry was just plain necessary for their lives and family to continue.

Within the first three chapters, Davis also describes the fumigation event of 1948 and the London Killer smog of 1952. Some of the descriptions are eerily familiar to those of us in the MOV who have just experienced the massive fire and smoke plume of Monday, October 23rd, 2017.

I recalled her vivid description of the cold air cap, the inversion and the sickly yellow smog that descended on their small town Tuesday, Oct. 26, 1948 and how it obliterated visibility all week so that people got lost trying to make it home from work, the evening football game or a friend's house. This was in my mind as I drove down the hill from Route 50 in Porterfield and mounted the Blennerhassette Bridge.

I had rolled up my windows in Little Hocking as I noticed a strange burning smell, but as I looked left and right off the bridge, I could see no trace of Parkersburg nor Blennerhassette Island vistas at 2:30 p.m.
I began regretting not calling ahead to assess conditions at the station before driving into work.

When I got to the station without incident, I parked outside and opened my door to gather my things. I was hit by the overpowering smell that took my breath away. I tried to run for the door of the building, but couldn't reach it before I had to gasp for another breath. I immediately regretted it.

As I stepped through the door into our security airlock, there were signs everywhere explaining NOT to enter the building with both doors open. And I realized again that I should have called or been called before trying to come into work. Waiting for the door to shut behind me, I cycled the airlock and got into the building. For the rest of the day, my clothes smelled of the stench of that sickly yellow cloud I had run through.

I immediately made an internet search of the Parkersburg Library card catalog for the book I had once read. No dice. It wasn't listed. I was stunned.

I broadened my search and found three copies held elsewhere in the MSN library network, available for inter-library loan requests. I called the librarian in South Parkersburg and asked where the book was. She had no idea. So I asked to make a suggestion that it should be replaced. She said she'd submit the request. However, the main library is closed for renovations this month.

My next step was to go to Amazon.com and look for a copy of the book myself. I found collectible copies, signed by the author, hardbound , paperback , new and used copies. Some of the offerings were as cheap as two bucks but most started about six. I bought three copies from three different vendors and paid for the shipping to my home.

The first copy has arrived, and I'm re-reading it again. The first two chapters are as warm and touching as I remembered them...but as scary and chilling as I recalled. The parallels between the 1948 event (not that far away) and our event jump out at me. Same time of year, same part of the country, similar weather, similar cloud, same choking smoke.

I've been telling people about this book, everywhere I go. And some recall a similar tale, but from television.

In about 1970-71, there was a segment of the NBC rotating series "The Men" with Hal Holbrook staring as "The Senator" in "A Clear and Present Danger". This fictional story describes a killing smog that socks in L.A., producing a first class public health emergency.

Through the plot of the story, the conditions get so bad, that the young senator calls the major players and the governor to the local hospital for an emergency meeting. They come, and get a forced tour of the emergency room, overwhelmed with patients gasping for breath. The message hits home, and the governor signs an emergency proclamation shutting down all factories that are belching smoke into the inversion-capped L.A. basin.

In the closing scenes, the generators and boilers and industry grind to a stop, no word is mentioned about the cost to business, industry nor the economy. But it is clear that drastic action had to be taken and serious issues of public health, clean air and pollution were about to be seriously discussed. To this day, I remember watching that TV movie and being impressed with the dramatic off-beat ending.

All these memories came flooding back this week.

I hope the lessons aren't lost on us. Do you remember?


Comments are posted from viewers like you and do not always reflect the views of this station. powered by Disqus