- The Washington Times - Monday, July 10, 2006

NEW YORK (AP) [-] A four-story building housing doctors’ offices collapsed and burned in an apparent gas explosion today after what witnesses described as a thunderous blast that rocked an upscale neighborhood just off Madison Avenue.

At least 11 people were injured [-] five civilians and six firefighters, the fire department said. One of the injured was the doctor who owned the building and was pulled from the rubble after communicating with rescuers by phone, fire Chief Nicholas Scoppetta said.

“This could have been an even worse disaster than it already is,” Chief Scoppetta said.

Chief Scoppetta said authorities were investigating the possibility that the blast was the result of a suicide attempt. “We’re still investigating that, talking about the potential for suicide. So that’s a distinct possibility.”

A police official told Associated Press that the lawyer for the doctor’s wife contacted police recently and said she had received an e-mail from him in which the physician, 66-year-old Nicholas Bartha, indicated he was contemplating suicide.

He was going through a difficult divorce and was being forced to sell the building, and authorities believe the explosion may have been related to a suicide attempt, the police official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.

Con Edison power company said its crews had been responding to complaints from a gas customer at an adjacent building at the time of the blast. White House press secretary Tony Snow said there was no indication of terrorism.

Yaakov Kermaier, 36, a resident in a building next door, said he was outside when he heard “a deafening boom. I saw the whole building explode in front of me.”

“Everybody started running; nobody knew what was coming next,” he said. His nanny and newborn escaped from their next-door apartment unharmed.

The building on Manhattan’s Upper East Side included two doctors’ offices, and records show at least one apartment was in the building, fire department Lt. Eugene Whyte said. Authorities said a nurse who was supposed to open one of the offices arrived late, narrowly missing the explosion.

Heavy black smoke rose high above the building, wedged between taller structures on 62nd Street between Park and Madison Avenues just a few blocks from Central Park. Bricks, glass and splintered wood were littered across the block, and windows in a neighboring building were blown out.

Thad Milonas, 57, was operating a coffee cart across from the building when the ground shook and the building came down; he said he helped two bleeding women from the scene.

TV host Larry King, who had been in a hotel room nearby, described the explosion to CNN as sounding like a bomb and feeling like an earthquake.

“I’ve never heard a sound like that,” Mr. King said.

Streets around the area were closed off to traffic as ambulances and rescue units responded about 8:40 a.m.

The building is an upscale neighborhood where the 2000 Census put the median home price at $1 million. On one corner of the street is the high-end Luca Luca clothing store, and across the street is the French retailer Hermes.

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