Gas scare traced to college student's car
A natural gas scare that kept Greencastle firefighters hopping for more than an hour Monday morning turned out to be nothing more than a common problem for thousands of college kids -- a car in need of a tune-up.
Greencastle Fire Department crews responded to the first call, to the Putnam County Courthouse, at 9:11 a.m., and the onslaught began. For the next 80 minutes, they responded to 11 calls of a natural gas odor on Washington, Locust, Seminary, Bloomington, College and Hanna streets.
"It was called in as natural gas," GFD Capt. Bill Miller said. "There's a smell that they put into the gas so we can smell it. You can't actually smell methane, so they put mercaptan into this gas as a safety measure."
At each call, the same script played out -- the odor was gone and no source was found.
"We chased a smell from the courthouse square, down to City Hall, clear up Hanna, across Olive and up into the Peeler Art Center and the Olin Science Building," Miller said.
Approximately 20 responders from GFD and Vectren Energy Delivery eventually tracked the odor to the Peeler parking lot.
Specifically, the smell seemed to center on one car, belonging to a DePauw student who had driven to Greencastle from northern Indiana Monday morning.
"This young man had been driving for the last two hours and basically some parts and pieces under the hood had gotten hot," Miller said.
Once firefighters were able to retrace the times and locations of the "natural gas" calls, they could figure out the student's route into town.
"We chased this car's whole route into Greencastle," Miller said. "He came down U.S. 231 North, into the square. He turned at the Clark station, went right up Locust Street to Olive Street, turned and went down Olive Street (across Indiana Street) and parked his car. We followed that same route by people calling in an odor."
Even with the source located, it was hard to believe the odor -- which smelled to everyone like the mercaptan in natural gas -- was coming from a motor vehicle.
"It was just too hard to believe that this car was packing such an odor," Miller said.
Officials even had the young man move his car across the parking lot.
"We had him actually move the car from one end of the parking lot to the other. We thought, maybe the vehicle was sitting on the leak in the parking lot," Miller said.
Vectren crews drilled to find a leak where the car had been, but the smell had already moved across the parking lot with the car.
Miller said he did not want to speculate on the exact cause of the odor, but that a combination of smells coming from the hot car likely caused the problem.
"It came down to a very strong odor being given off by the vehicle," he said. "There were parts of this car that were getting overheated and it was mistaken for the odor of natural gas."
He added that the problem was exacerbated by Monday morning's weather conditions -- little to no wind and a low, heavy cloud ceiling.
"There was only a 4 mph breeze out of the southwest, so air wasn't really moving. And there was a really low and heavy ceiling," Miller said.
As for the student and his car, Miller's layman opinion is it may be time for some professional assistance.
"He's probably going to be taking it to a mechanic to see what he thinks," the firefighter said with a laugh.