- The Washington Times - Monday, January 8, 2007

From combined dispatches

New Yorkers yesterday bombarded emergency operators with phone calls, crowded the sidewalks in front of buildings and tuned into local TV news seeking an answer to one question: “What’s that smell?”

Trains were halted and schools were evacuated, but officials could provide no explanation for an odor that smelled like natural gas and alarmed residents and workers in Manhattan.

Although the mystery might never be solved, New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s assessment of the situation may live on: “We are waiting for the gas to pass,” he told Reuters news agency.

“That smell was stinking,” said Alfred Stewart, who lives in an apartment in Manhattan’s Chelsea section. “It smelled like, toxic.”

“It was really, really bad … so bad it gave me a headache,” said Kate Browne, who lives in the West Village neighborhood.

The odor also was detected in parts of northern New Jersey, where seven persons sought treatment at hospitals, but Mr. Bloomberg said there was no indication the air was unsafe.

“It may just be an unpleasant smell,” he said. Sensors did not show an unusually high concentration of natural gas, he said, and the city’s major utility company reported that it found no gas leaks.

The mayor said the smell may have been caused by a leak of a substance called methyl mercaptan that is added to natural gas for safety reasons to give it a recognizable odor. By itself, natural gas is odorless.

Some commuter trains running between New Jersey and Manhattan were suspended for about an hour as a precaution. A few city schools were evacuated. Some apartment dwellers were advised to close their windows. Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said there was nothing to suggest terrorism.

Twelve persons were taken by ambulance to New York hospitals by emergency workers responding to calls from people complaining of upset stomachs, dizziness or difficulty breathing, a Fire Department spokesman said.

“It was all minor,” said the spokesman, though he added that a total of 409 firetrucks and hook-and-ladder rigs were scrambled to investigate the fumes — about six times more than during a normal period.

The Fire Department began getting calls about 9 a.m. Gas provider Con Edison said it fielded 700 calls from people worried about the smell, from as far north as Washington Heights to as far south as Greenwich Village and as far east as Lexington Avenue.

Con Edison spokesman Chris Olert said more than 60 utility workers fanned out across Manhattan’s West Side but found no indication of a gas leak.

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