2005-06-03 / Front Page

Mystery Smell Fells Kids, Adults

By Howard Schwach

EMTs load a female student into a waiting ambulance near PS 183 Friday. The girl was one of several students affected by a mysterious odor. 
EMTs load a female student into a waiting ambulance near PS 183 Friday. The girl was one of several students affected by a mysterious odor.

  • The outcome of the mystery smell that hit the central portion of the Rockaway Peninsula, roughly between Beach 80 Street and Beach 90 Street last Friday afternoon is well documented.
  • Nearly 1,000 children were evacuated from two Rockaway schools – PS 183 and St. Rose of Lima School.

    Four school children from PS 183 were taken to local hospitals.

    Several adults were taken to hospitals as well.

    Hundreds of calls were logged by the 911 emergency system, mostly from people distressed by the overwhelming smell.

    Police and fire units, including the NYPD’s Emergency Service Unit (ESU) and the FDNY’s Hazmat Unit responded to the mobilization call.

    While the outcome is known, why the smell hit Rockaway and, indeed, what it was, remain something of a mystery.

    There are at least two theories involving aircraft.

    The first is that a jetliner in distress landing at John F. Kennedy Airport dumped fuel, layering it over the peninsula, from ocean to bay.

    Jim Peters, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA), the agency that monitors such events, told The Wave that the agency had no reports of a plane dumping fuel over Rockaway and that it was unlikely that dumped aviation fuel could cause such a problem.

    Jonathon Gaska, District Manager for Community Board 14, however said that he got a call on Friday from The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey stating that the smell came from a fuel dump by an aircraft flying near Rockaway. A spokesperson for the PA, however, said that it has no indication of a fuel dump over Rockaway and added that there is no record of anybody calling Community Board 14 on Friday.

    The second theory involving aircraft is that military aircraft, both vintage and modern, flying over the peninsula on their way to an air show at Jones Beach in Long Island dropped fuel, causing the stink and the illness. Channel 2 News pushed this story extensively on Friday night, with pictures of the aircraft. Fox News reported on Friday night that the fumes came from six Air Force F-18 Hornets flown by its stunt team, The Thunderbirds, when they went into a steep climb.

    The planes, however, apparently never flew over the peninsula, staying out over the ocean and a spokesperson for the Thunderbirds performance team, said that their F-18 Hornet aircraft are not capable of dumping fuel. The spokesperson added that the planes are equipped with smoke that makes it easier for the crowd below to see the plane’s maneuvers. That smoke is released when the planes are performing a stunt such as a vertical climb. It has no smell, according to the spokesperson.

    The third theory involves natural gas. Many of those who smelled the odor were convinced that a KeySpan Energy team cleaning pipes on Rockaway Beach Boulevard and Beach 84 Street created a gas leak.

    Ed Yutkowitz, a spokesperson for the energy company said it was called by the fire department’s battalion chief and several crews were dispatched to investigate with negative results.

    “We did a full leak investigation and there is no indication of natural gas involvement,” he said.

    Department of Education spokesperson Kelly Devers told reporters that Renee Pert, the principal of the PS 183, called the fire department about 1 p.m. Friday after noticing the odor and then getting reports that children in the building were ill.

    Pert directed everyone in the building to the school’s playground. Four children were hospitalized briefly. Three fifth graders were taken to Peninsula Hospital Center and a third grader was taken to St. John’s Episcopal Hospital. All of the children were treated and released to their parents.

    At the same time, St. Rose of Lima School on Beach 84 Street was evacuated, but there were no reported illnesses at that school.

    All classes at PS 183 resumed later in the afternoon, but St. Rose of Lima reportedly dismissed their students.

    A spokesperson for the New York City Fire Department said that he could not provide a cause for the smell.

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