Someone Open a Window!

By David Segal and Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 9, 2007

NEW YORK, Jan. 8 -- Rife with garbage, car fumes and mysterious puddles, New York City is a ratatouille of foul odors even on a good day. For a stink to get noticed in this town, it really has to reek.

So you know that whatever settled Monday morning over a random assortment of Manhattan blocks, from Midtown all the way south to Battery Park, was memorably noxious. It sickened a few people, shut down part of a commuter train system and prompted the evacuation of a handful of buildings and schools. Ambulances and firetrucks were dispatched; cable news networks sprang into tag-team coverage mode. And those who caught a whiff were left in olfactory awe.

"I've smelled some horrible things," said Thomas Pridgen, a sanitation worker for 15 years, taking a lunchtime break in Herald Square. "But this is the first time anything made me feel lightheaded and nauseous."

The stench was described as like the smell of natural gas, or more specifically the additive that gives natural gas its vaguely rotten-smelling aroma. But as of Monday night, nobody knew exactly what the odor was or where it came from. Mayor Michael Bloomberg held a news conference in the morning to ease fears and note that he, too, was baffled.

"We don't know the source of it," he said. "It does not appear to be dangerous."

Suspicion immediately fell on New Jersey. In part this was because industrial northern New Jersey is synonymous with ghastly smells and in part because New York enjoys blaming New Jersey for unfortunate occurrences whenever possible. Also, swaths of the Garden State were hit with an identical odor Monday; the local gas company fielded 900 calls before noon.

New Jersey, however, denied any involvement.

"We don't have any reason to believe it came from New Jersey," said Maria Pignataro, press secretary to the Jersey City mayor.

Whichever side of the Hudson cut the cheese, this is hardly the first stink-related mystery to hit the area recently. Last summer, seven people were hospitalized when a strange gaseous odor wafted through Queens and Staten Island. Last January, a mysterious smell likened to maple syrup dropped in, and in the summer of 2005, an overpowering rotting smell snaked around a few blocks of Manhattan. There was speculation that the source was human body parts; a medical examiner determined that the culprit was a bag of fish.

Though most nose-witnesses described the latest inductee into the local Stink Hall of Fame as natural gas-like, other guesses were offered.

"The smell of foot," suggested Eddy Ghazarian, 25, a Web site editor visiting from Cairo.

"It smelled like sewer gas to me," said Robert McDougall, a national bank examiner in the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, who first detected the odor in his cubicle on the 42nd floor of an office building.

Another possibility: It was the Jets and Giants. Both football teams played Sunday, and both lost, eliminated from the NFL playoffs.

Alas, both were away games.

"And if it was either of those teams," said Joe DeMartino, a security guard at a Herald Square bank, "believe me, it would have stunk even worse."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company