Center City buildings evacuated over strange smell: What we know

The Philly Fire Department could not confirm reports that the odor came from the former PES Refinery.

People were evacuated from several buildings surrounding Love Park

People were evacuated from several buildings surrounding Love Park

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Several Center City buildings were evacuated on Monday just before noon amid reports of a strange odor.

The source of the smell, originally attributed to something coming from the former PES Refinery, remains unknown, according to Philadelphia Fire Department Commissioner Adam Thiel.

“As of right now, there is no indication of anything hazardous,” Thiel said at an afternoon press conference.

Earlier in the day, Health Department spokesperson James Garrow told Billy Penn the smell was wafting into Center City from the former South Philly refinery site. “The city was notified that down at the PES refinery… there was a release of an additive called mercaptan that smells like gas,” Garrow said.

But after sending hazmat units to investigate, the Fire Department said it could not confirm those initial reports.

Thiel said the mercaptan information had likely originated with a worker involved in cleanup at PES. He also said the actual chemical causing the stench remained undefined.

Evacuating buildings as a preventative measure was the right thing to do, Thiel added. Evacuated structures included the Bellevue, Centre Square (“the Clothespin” building), Temple University Center City and numerous others on the blocks west of City Hall

According to SEPTA spokesperson John Golden, there were no disruptions to any modes of public transportation.

Philly’s Office of Emergency Management waited until around 1:15 p.m. to send an alert about the incident. According to OEM spokesperson Jeffrey Kolakowski, the department wanted to make sure they were putting out “accurate information” before blowing up people’s phones.

Meanwhile, Temple University sent an alert around 11:30 a.m. telling people the strange smell posed no danger. “A refinery in South Philadelphia is being cleaned,” the alert read, “which has caused a chemical odor to permeate the city. There is no risk to residents and the odor will dissipate. There is no need to evacuate campus buildings.”

Two Philly public schools were evacuated after faculty members smelled gas — Benjamin Franklin Elementary in Lawncrest and Roberto Clemente Middle School in Feltonville. After a few minutes both schools were given the all clear to reopen.

Philadelphia Gas Works confirmed to Billy Penn that the “foreign odor [was] not related to PGW.” Spokesperson Melanie McCottry said PGW received more than 500 calls about the odor.

Mercaptan is a chemical compound also known as methanethiol. It’s a colorless gas and is known to have a gas-like, rotten eggs smell. Methanethiol is a natural substance found in the blood, brain and other tissues of humans and animals, and “is also one of the main chemicals responsible for bad breath and flatulence,” according to information from the National Institute of Health.

True to form, Philadelphians used humor as a coping mechanism.

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