| A resident watches emergency workers look for the source of the natural gas odour in New York. (AFP)
New York, Jan. 8 (Reuters): A mysterious, powerful smell of natural gas throughout much of Manhattan forced evacuations of some buildings and a temporary suspension of a commuter train service this morning as authorities scrambled to determine the source.
But there were no immediate reports of injuries and New York mayor Michael Bloomberg said the odour was not dangerous.
“It may just be an unpleasant smell, but at this point we do not know any more than that. The one thing we are confident about is, it is not dangerous,” Bloomberg said.
“The city’s air sensors do not report any elevated level of natural gas,” he added.
The smell permeated lower Manhattan and was detected as far north as Central Park, across the width of the island, and in New Jersey across the Hudson river. It had largely dissipated by midday.
The wide extent of the odour provoked jitters in a city that is constantly reminded of the September 11 attacks. Police and fire sirens sounded throughout much of the city.
A US department of homeland security spokesman said “there is no indication at this time of a terrorism connection.” Four schools in Manhattan were briefly evacuated, and the smell chased people out of landmarks such as the Rockefeller Center and Macy’s department store.
“It was really, really bad then, so bad it gave me a headache,” said Kate Browne, who lives in the West Village neighbourhood and said she could smell the gas when she took her daughter to school.
“The emergency services turned up at my daughter’s school looking for the leak then,” she said.
Part of the New York-New Jersey PATH (Port Authority Trans-Hudson) commuter train system, which carries 225,000 passengers a day, was shut down temporarily as a precaution but normal service quickly resumed.
Several office buildings were evacuated and their air conditioning systems shut down, but city officials soon told building managers that people could return to work.
“There have been no abnormal changes in gas flow in our gas transmission lines,” a spokesman for power utility Con Edison said. He declined to answer questions.
Bloomberg reported a small gas leak in lower Manhattan but said that was not nearly enough to account for the wide range of the odour.
The city was blanketed with low clouds and there was light rain and little wind.
Natural gas is odourless and has added to it a chemical called methyl mercaptan so that people can detect leaks. The chemical adds an odour similar to rotten eggs or sulphur, which was what people smelled during their morning commute.
The huge Macy’s department store at Herald Square briefly evacuated its employees before the store opened and would not let arriving employees inside for a few minutes, said Myrna Hendricks, who works in gift-wrapping.