Gas-like odor permeates parts of New York City

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The Independent US

Authorities were investigating the source of a mysterious gas-like odor Monday that wafted over a large part of Manhattan, prompting the evacuation of some buildings and the suspension of some commuter rail service.

Officials were quick to allay public fears as the odour spread almost to the northern edge of Manhattan. Mayor Michael Bloomberg said there was no indication that the air was unsafe to breathe. Department of Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said there was no sign of terrorism.

"It may just be an unpleasant smell," Bloomberg said. "Our suggestion is that people should do their best to ventilate areas, open their windows or turn on any fans until this gas passes."

The Fire Department began receiving calls about the odor around 9 a.m. on Monday, said spokesman Tim Hinchey. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey temporarily suspended some of its PATH commuter train service between New Jersey and Manhattan as a precaution.

There was a small gas leak in Greenwich Village, but it would not have been enough to account for the pervasive odor, Bloomberg said. He said the smell may have resulted from a leak of the chemical mercaptan, which is added to natural gas to produce its easily recognisable odor. By itself, natural gas is odorless.

Crews from utility company Consolidated Edison were investigating, but they had found no abnormal changes in the gas flow with in its transmission system, said spokesman Chris Olert. "If there was a big leak, we would see a change in the gas flow," he said.

Olert said the company fielded hundreds of calls from people concerned about the odor, from as far north as Washington Heights to as far south as Greenwich Village and as far east as Lexington Avenue.

In some areas, office buildings and apartment buildings were evacuated as a precaution.

"The smell was very strong. It was very scary," said Yolanda Van Gemd, an administrator at ASA, a business school near the Empire State Building that was evacuated.

In August, seven people were treated at hospitals after a gaseous smell in the boroughs of Queens and Staten Island.

While New Yorkers worried about the gas smell Monday morning, a large part of downtown of Texas' capital, Austin, was shut down after the discovery of dozens of dead birds near the state Capitol. Crews in hazardous-materials suits searched a 10-block area and collected about 60 dead pigeons, sparrows and grackles for testing, but preliminary air-quality tests showed no dangerous chemicals, officials said.