What was that smell?

Matthew Greenia, kitchen manager at the Russell Street Deli, reports that when he and co-workers were preparing for the noontime rush on Jan. 26, they noticed a noxious smell coming from the basement. Greenia closed the restaurant before the midday crowd arrived.

"Our employees were here getting ready to serve lunch and it got worse and worse," Greenia says. "We started feeling dizzy and nauseous — kind of like teenagers sniffing glue."

Oh, yeah, we know that feeling.

A quick check with neighbors revealed that R. Hirt Jr. Co., Busy Bee Hardware, the Rocky Peanut Co. and Cost Plus Wines were among those experiencing the same problem.

Dave Colling at Vivio's Restaurant says his folks noticed the toxic smell a few days earlier than his neighbors. On Monday, Jan. 23, he reported the problem to the Detroit Fire Department. Fire officials responded quickly and saw it was a job for the hazardous materials squad. They arrived the next morning with members of the Water & Sewerage Department and took samples to try to identify the substance and find where it came from.

The haz-mat team flushed the sewers Tuesday evening. Problem is, they didn't alert the surrounding businesses to cover basement sewer drains to prevent the noxious fumes from burping up.

Cost Plus owner Tim McCarthy says it "smelled like epoxy. Smelled like the stuff people use to work on the floors." Russell Street's Greenia describes it as "kind of a polyurethane, headache toxic smell."

Our call to the haz-mat unit yielded a referral to the Fire Department's public information office. There we were put in touch with someone saying he didn't like talking to the press and suggested we call the department's fire prevention unit. That got us nowhere.

Eventually, Chief Lee Moore told us, "We couldn't come up with very much. The department went out there a couple days to check and to monitor but couldn't get any readings. Apparently someone dumped something in the sewer that was quite potent when it first went in. But there was no residue — it just went through the system."

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