On Halloween night, 1948, a fog rolled in to blanket the town of Donora, Pennsylvania. What came from that cloud wasn't the ghosts of vengeful pirates, or horror movie zombies. It was worse.
This wasn't the first time the industrial town of 13,000 had been socked in by a brown, pollution tinged smog. But this time the air had a peculiar, acrid smell. Those who breathed the fog felt as if they were breathing fire. It scorched their eyes, their throat, their lungs. Still, Donora was a mill town. Workers squinted against the bitter air and went on to their jobs. That night, as people were walking back to their houses, some of them began to die.
Soon doctors' offices were overrun and the hospital was filled with the sick and the dying. The fog held on the next day. And the next. A local hotel was pressed into service as an extension to the hospital, with volunteers serving as nurses. As bodies piled up at local funeral homes, the ground floor of that hotel became a makeshift morgue. Within five days, twenty people had died. Hundreds more were seriously injured with damage that would shorten their lives or affect their ability to work. A decade later, local papers still told the story of lives cut short.
The villain in Donora was the a toxic stew spit out by a local zinc refinery. It wasn't the first time the plant's fumes had turned the air around the town toxic, but this time a temperature inversion capped the smog. In the midst of the crisis, suspicion about the cause brought town officials to the zinc works, where they asked that the plant's operations be reduced until the weather changed. The plant operators refused. After five days, the inversion layer broke and the brown fog blew away. Eleven of those who died did so on that final day. A local doctor estimated that if the weather had held another day, the death toll would have been in the hundreds, rather than the tens.
That Sunday, as the sky broke and rains came, the zinc works finally agreed to reduce operations. They went back to normal the next day.
February 1972 was cold and rainy in West Virginia. Toward the end of the month, the last of winter's wet snows melted down and for days rains fell almost continuously. The miners and shopkeepers around the little town of Saunders went to their jobs with rain sluicing from their hats, and the children splashed home on muddy streets. By the night of the 25th, the creek that ran alongside the town was running high and fast.
At 8AM on the morning of the 26th, folks in Saunders were seeing their kids off to school, making their way to work, and frowning at another morning of rain. They had only a moment to feel the rumble under their feet and hear the screaming roar that echoed through the town. Then a 20 foot high wall of midnight black water swept through the narrow valley. Buildings were crushed by the rushing wave as if they had be struck by God's own hammer. Trees didn't have time to be uprooted, they were simply snapped off at the ground. The water caromed from one side of the valley to the other and back again, sweeping down homes and gouging the valley walls. People were plucked from the streets before they could make sense of the thunderous sound. Others went tumbling as their homes were torn from around them. Cars, homes, sections of rail track, the shattered remains of stores, schools, and bodies -- they all joined the wall as it roared downstream into the town of Pardee. And Lorado. And Craneco. And Stowe, Crites, Latrobe, Robinette, Amherstdale, Becco, Fanco, Braeholm, Accoville, Crown, and Kistler.
For minutes after the wall had passed, the cold February rain fell on a world that was silent except for the sound of water. No birds singing. No dogs barking. No people talking. There were only piles of debris and cold gray mud.
In a matter of minutes 125 were dead and 1,100 injured. 4,000 more were left homeless.
That wall of water had originated from a coal slurry dam, a rude impoundment of earth and stone built high in the valley of Buffalo Creek. On the night before, workers at the mine responsible for the dam had noticed that water was straining the limits of the impoundment, and the dam was sagging under the force. Officials of the company were notified. They sent no warning to the people below. Deputy sheriffs from the county came up the hill only hours before the dam burst, to ask if they should evacuate the towns. They were sent away.
It was almost the end of the work day for the young workers at the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place in New York City on March 26, 1911. Spring had been cool that year, and those getting ready to leave slid into coats and put on their hats. Most of the workers employed by the firm of Harris & Blanck worked a different shift and went home at noon, but there were still six hundred workers -- 500 women and 100 men -- packed into the top three floors of the factory. Most of them were immigrants from Italy, Germany, or Eastern Europe. The majority of them were under the age of 16. For ten hours or more a day they bent over tightly packed rows of sewing machines and worked with their fingers to make the factory's signature product -- shirtwaists. Their shift ended at 4:45.
At 4:40, someone noticed the first touch of smoke.
Within half an hour, flames consumed the top three floors of the "fire proof" building. Many of the workers on the eighth floor were able to escape down the steps, so were some of those working on nine. Students next door at New York University saw what was happening and helped to save hundreds who reached the roof. Then the flames cut off that route. Soon those that remained were huddled next to the windows of those top three floors. As the flames closed in on them, one after another, they jumped.
Along the sidewalks of Broadway, thousands cried and screamed in horror as the scorched bodies of women -- girls, really -- tore through inadequate fire safety nets, smashed though glass awnings, and thudded into the street. Sobbing children with their clothing and hair on fire leaped for safety ladders that stopped two stories below their windows.
Fueled by miles of hanging fabric, wooden tables, and machine oil, the fire that started five minutes before the end of the shift burned out almost before firemen could get inside. It left the building intact, the walls only scorched. The bodies left behind were barely recognizable as human. 141 people died, hundreds more were injured.
And that's how we lost our freedom. Not our freedom of speech or any of our individual rights to assemble or worship as we please, to live where we want. That's where we lost the freedom of the marketplace, the freedom of the Ayn Randian dream. Actually, it goes even further back than that. When the nation was formed, those founding fathers made the "the American compromise," recognizing that the marketplace should advance under government supervision. This has always been a place where the government has stepped in to stop excess and address needs. And yes, conservatives have been whining from day one.
Why is the United States "hamstrung by regulations" as so many conservative pundits have stated? Because of Donora, because of Buffalo Creek, because of the Triangle Factory. Because when no one made companies do the right thing, the right thing didn't get done. No matter how many Republicans want to misread Adam Smith, profit and worker protections are not allied. If American workers are going to come home to their families day in and day out without losing an eye, or a limb, or their lives, it takes regulation.
No one implemented health, safety, and environmental legislation because they thought it would be fun. We didn't do it because we hate corporations, because we wanted to make jobs for government bureaucrats, or out of some desire to snatch power away from states. We did it because that kind of freedom, marketplace freedom, was literally killing us.
We put in the Clean Air Act because of incidents like that at Donora, because across the nation there were "black Mondays" and "black Tuesdays" and black every other day of the week when choking clouds of pollution brought midnight at noon. We did it because lead from gasoline was saturating our environment. We did it because "a clear day" should not be a rare event.
We instituted the Clean Water Act to regulate impoundments like the one that destroyed lives in West Virginia, to limit the pollution that saw the Cuyahoga river burn not once, but a dozen times. It was done to save the waters of the Great Lakes, where pollution threatened the livelihood and the lives of all those on the shores. We did it to make our drinking water safe. We did it to make our rivers and lakes good places to fish and swim.
OSHA, MSHA, and workplace safety rules were put in place because of situations like that at the Triangle Factory. Put in place because of the hundreds who died in steel mills and on construction sites. Put in place to guard against mine disasters that killed 100, 200, 300 people at a time. Those regulations were put in place to clean up workplaces where more than 20,000 Americans were dying from accidents each year.
We inspect food because it vastly reduces cases of trichinosis, salmonella, and other food borne diseases to the point where the worst of our recent failures aren't a patch on what was once commonplace. We wear seatbelts because they protect our families. We give children vaccinations because it saves millions of lives and untold misery. And we put in place Social Security because without it almost half of America's elderly would live in poverty. Government moved into these areas not because they wanted more power over people's lives. It was done because we, we the people, asked that government take these steps.
In recent days there seems to be a trend, especially among those nodding along to Fox News, to look on every government worker as a leach on society. Is there any term said with more innate disdain than government bureaucrat? When George W. Bush first ran for congress, he campaigned for the elimination of two government agencies -- OSHA and the EPA. It's a position that would draw many cheers from those pulling for Rick Perry's rebellion today.
If there is one critical difference between the conservative and progressive view of the nation it is this: Conservatives believe that America became a vibrant, wealthy nation in spite of the government's burden on business. Progressives believe that the United States prospered because of a national effort to reign in the worst of corporate excess.
Over a century, we became a country with safety rules, with environmental regulations, with protection for the elderly. Over that same century our economy and individual wealth outstripped both our historical bests and the record of the rest of the world. Progressives see that as victory. Conservatives call it coincidence.
It's tempting to run the experiment of giving conservatives what they want. A nation without environmental rules, without workplace safety rules, without any social safety nets. Free them from the reign of bureaucrats and petty regulations. Let them live in that place where the medicine you give your baby to ease her teething pains can be made with antifreeze. Let them work in a mine where there is no regulation and thousands die each year. Let them wonder if their next bite of food will put them among the 1.8 million who die horribly each year from severe food-borne cases of diarrhea. Let them drive a car that will fall apart in the slightest collision. Let them breath free air, untainted by government interference -- air you can really sink your teeth into.
Fortunately, we don't have to run that experiment -- because we already did it. That's how we got where we are today. All those areas of our lives became regulated, because left unregulated people overreached to unsafe, and frequently hideous degrees. There would be no Clean Air Act if companies had controlled pollution on their own. There'd be no need to regulate banks, had they not demonstrate time and again that without supervisions they'll chase short term profit into a pit -- and drag the rest of us after them.
America isn't the only example of this experiment. This is an study that's been made hundreds of time in hundreds of nations, and the absolute freedom of the marketplace always runs counter to the good of ordinary citizens. Always. Those places in the world with the fewest restrictions on business are not the places anyone would really want to live. They're not even good places to do business if your task is more complex than ripping resources out of the ground and shipping them to some place that's safer. Business and government must reach a compromise if either is to be effective.
Today's conservatives are like yesterday's socialists. Yeah, they say, things look bad over there, and they used to be bad here, but those guys didn't run my perfect economic/political system the way it should be run. Sure, every time we've tried it before it brought on disaster, but this time for sure! A few minor tweaks and this time it'll be perfect. This time, if we take away all the restrictions, companies will be good and the nation will really take off! It's really just the regulations that are stopping them from showing what they really can do.
For that I say, thank God.