Mysterious Stench Nauseates Northeast

By Del Quentin Wilber and Nia-Malika Henderson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 29, 2005

Olive Taylor first noticed the odor Tuesday night outside her Northeast Washington home. By yesterday morning, the smell had turned into a stench so bad that it woke her up.

"It was so unlike anything that should have been in my home," said Taylor, 71. "It wasn't really a gas smell. My son said it was a propane smell, but a neighbor said it didn't smell like propane. Maybe it was kind of gassy. It was in fact giving me a headache."

Scores of people in the District called authorities yesterday to complain that a similar odor was invading homes, businesses, a dozen schools and two police stations. Many mistakenly thought the trouble was a natural gas leak, and at least two schools were evacuated for a time.

Firefighters and work crews shuttled from place to place during the day and tested air to find the cause of the odor. The number of complaints tailed off as the afternoon wore on, but the cause of the smell remained a mystery last night.

Most of the complaints came from Northeast Washington, where the odor seemed to come and go for no discernible reason. There was no consensus on what it smelled like, only that it was nasty.

Some top fire officials initially worried about a major gas line rupture or equipment failure. They settled on two less-menacing potential culprits: a clogged sewer line in Prince George's County or extra-smelly city storm drains. Officials said the storm drains may not have been properly flushed out by rainwater in the recent dry spell.

Alan Etter, a D.C. fire department spokesman, said the stench apparently traveled through the sewer pipe or storm drains -- "or a combination of both" -- and became concentrated in poorly ventilated buildings. In other words, the smell was most noticeable in D.C. public schools and two District police stations. "There's not good ventilation in the older buildings, and you have lots of people to notice it," Etter said.

Not everyone agreed with the fire department's theories. Officials at the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission said their sewer pipe was not responsible.

Lydia Wilson, a commission spokeswoman, confirmed that work crews were repairing a large section of 75-year-old pipe that was found crushed underground in Capitol Heights, near the D.C. line. But she said the workers believed that the broken pipe had "nothing to do" with the stench.

"We have no idea what caused the smell," Wilson said.

Washington Gas received more than 150 calls about possible gas leaks, officials said.

D.C. Battalion Chief Brian Lee was in his office yesterday morning when his fire department radio began barking: Gas leak at Smothers Elementary School. Gas leak at the 6th District Police Station. Gas leak at Orr Elementary School. Gas leak at a Safeway supermarket.

Firefighters responded to more than 35 calls for gas leaks within 12 hours. The vast majority were unfounded, Lee said.

"We usually get several calls like that a day, but not 30," Lee said.

Keturah Anderson, a 16-year-old 12th-grader at Spingarn Senior High School, in the 2500 block of Benning Road NE, said she noticed the odor yesterday morning while on her way to homeroom. "In the hallways, you could smell gas throughout the school; it was strong," she said.

Spingarn Principal Reginald Burke evacuated the school and called the fire department. Firefighters found nothing hazardous in the air. Students returned to classes after about 30 minutes.

Seven miles away, people were talking about their experience at Curtis Chevrolet, in the 59oo block of Georgia Avenue NW. Switchboard operator De-Borah Kidd was forced to stand at the door to get fresh air.

"It smelled like skunk, rotten eggs and sulfur," she said, adding that her description might not have done the odor justice.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company