If you smell natural gas, report it


The horrific gas explosion that struck East Harlem on March 12 has something in common with the famous story of Kitty Genovese.

In the Kitty Genovese murder – which happened 50 years ago this week – plenty of people supposedly knew something was wrong. They heard her screams. But they didn’t call the police.

In East Harlem, plenty of people also knew something was wrong. They told reporters they smelled gas days before the blast that leveled two buildings and as of March 13 had killed eight people. But as in the Kitty Genovese saga (widely dismissed as urban legend) nobody called authorities until it was too late.

Unfortunately, few people bother to report the smell of natural gas. One expert gas worker tells me he wishes he had a nickel for every time he was sent to a natural gas leak and heard someone say: “I smelled gas … I thought somebody else would call.”

When someone in East Harlem finally did call in the minutes before the March 12 disaster, Con Edison didn’t waste any time about it. The company got the report of a strong odor of gas at 9:13 a.m., and a crew was headed to the scene at 9:15 a.m. The workers were still on their way when the blast erupted at 9:31 a.m.

Under state rules, Con Edison must respond to 90 percent of emergency calls within 45 minutes, and 75 percent of calls within 30 minutes. It appears the company’s response in this incident was well within those guidelines.

The state believes utilities need to do a better job of persuading people to report natural gas odors. As part of its investigation of a 2011 blast in Horseheads, NY that killed a 15-month-old boy, the Public Service Commission on March 7 announced it is seeking ideas on how to persuade people to call in suspected leaks.

If you smell gas, go ahead and report it – Con Edison has people standing by to check gas odors. The phone number is 800-752-6633. [If you’re in National Grid territory, call 718-643-4050.] Utilities expect many odor reports will be false alarms, so you shouldn’t be afraid to call. Con Ed says about 40 percent of its gas odor reports are unfounded.

It could be a long time – if ever – before we know exactly what caused the East Harlem explosion. The state’s gas investigations can take years, even in cases with fatalities. The National Transportation Safety Board’s probe of this blast will end only when its investigators decide they’ve gotten to the bottom of it.

There are lots of issues involving the age of New York’s gas infrastucture and Con Ed’s efforts to maintain it. But if someone had called when they smelled the rotten-egg odor of a gas leak several days beforehand, this disaster might have been averted.

Update, March 16: The New York Post found the man who called in the East Harlem leak — he regrets his report was too late. Also, I have a story in the March 16 edition of the New York Post about Con Ed’s problems keeping up with leaky gas pipes.

About Bill Sanderson

I'm a New York-based journalist, and a former reporter at the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire, the Bergen Record in New Jersey, and the New York Post. My work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, MarketWatch.com and Politico New York. Twitter: @wpsanderson.
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3 thoughts on “If you smell natural gas, report it

  1. Deborah says:

    I heard in the news media (not sure if this is true or not) that residents reported the smell to the landlord or property manager. Does a landlord or property manager have a legal obligation to phone in a suspected gas leak?

    Also, I was surprised that people stayed in the residence even when they smelled gas. Utility safety messaging often states that all people and pets should leave the premise immediately and then call for help.

  2. Ted Smith says:

    Great analogy! Just don’t stand back and figure someone else will take care of it. We all contribute to these resources so we should make sure they are deployed when needed.

  3. Casey Smith says:

    An absolutely imperative bit of advice!