New York's Gas Crisis Passes

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Justin Lane / EPA

Chris Haas, center, of the Department of Environmental Protection is photographed while taking air quality samples in lower Manhattan. Emergency personnel around the city investigated numerous reports of the smell of natural gas in many locations around New York and New Jersey.

Two of Manhattan’s less celebrated hallmarks — its foul odors and its anxious populace — collided on Monday as a strong gas-like smell spread fear, and a lingering hint of bad cabbage, across much of Manhattan and neighboring New Jersey.

In the two hours between the onset of the smell and later reassurances from the city and the Department of Homeland Security that it was neither harmful nor terror-related, the episode brought fresh anxieties to the region. Some office buildings, schools and stores were evacuated, though briefly. The PATH train between New Jersey and New York stopped service for a short time on several lines. By mid-morning, all services had been restored.

Phil Campbell, 34, works on the 31st floor of a Rockefeller Center building in midtown Manhattan and says that the smell set in just before 9 a.m. “Pretty soon, people were getting headaches and starting to feel faint,” he says. “I was getting nauseous myself.”

As in our own Time-Life building down the street, Campbell’s building had multiple security announcements that the cause of the gas smell was being investigated, without guidance on either staying or going. For Campbell and his coworkers, that wasn’t reassurance enough. They just decided to leave on their own, with their boss in tow. “That’s what we all remember from 9/11,” says Campbell. “Only some people took the initiative to leave back then. No way I was going to stay.”

Gaggles of employees who did evacuate huddled outside midtown buildings trying to escape the morning drizzle, but the opportunity to sneak in a mid-morning smoke proved too tempting for some — despite the pervasive smell of natural gas.

The smell made news around the globe. Bogdan Geana, 25, a graphic designer who works in midtown east, says that he was in a meeting just before 10 a.m. when he got five or six calls in a row from his mother in Romania. He finally stepped out to take the call. “My mom was really, really worried,” he says. “The television in Romania was saying there was a cloud of deadly gas over Manhattan.”

New York, of course, has had its share of mystery aromas, big and small. In 2005, an odd maple syrup smell overcame parts of Manhattan and New Jersey. Last August, an unidentified odor sent people to the hospital in Staten Island and Queens.

By mid-morning, Mayor Michael Bloomberg held a press conference to assure New Yorkers that although the city didn’t know where the smell was coming from, they were sure it wasn’t dangerous. He held a short disquisition on mercaptan, the sulfurous but usually harmless chemical additive that makes odorless natural gas detectable. You’re not smelling gas, he said, but mercaptan. The basic message was to crack a window and get on with Monday.

After that announcement, the jokes could safely begin. The cause of the gas smell has still not been determined. But online and in the offices of Manhattan, New Yorkers and New Jerseyites traded blame for being its source. Others took a quiet delight in watching Mayor Bloomberg stumble into the phrase “we are waiting for the gas to pass.”

The anxiety also persisted. Even if the substance was harmless, some speculated, perhaps it was a dry run by al-Qaeda, to test how a deadly airborne weapon might disperse over Manhattan.

Campbell and his colleagues settled on a simple plan to escape the odor. They walked a few blocks to sit down at the Times Square McDonald’s. “It was great,” he says. “I couldn’t smell anything but French Fries.”