- The Washington Times - Monday, July 10, 2006

NEW YORK (AP) — A four-story building on Manhattan’s Upper East Side collapsed into a pile of rubble yesterday after a thunderous explosion that hurled fireballs skyward and left an upscale block littered with bricks, broken glass and splintered wood.

Authorities said the blast was caused by gas, and they were investigating whether it was the result of a suicide attempt by the building’s owner, a doctor who is going through a bitter divorce. At least 15 persons were injured.

Dr. Nicholas Bartha, 66, recently sent out a rambling e-mail to his wife in which he contemplated suicide, a police official with direct knowledge of the case told the Associated Press. The note read in part, “You will be transformed from gold digger to ash and rubble digger.”

The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.

Five civilians and 10 firefighters were injured. Dr. Bartha was pulled from the rubble after talking with authorities from his phone while buried in the wreckage, Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta said. Dr. Bartha and one passer-by suffered severe injuries; the others had minor injuries.

Dr. Bartha faced a $4 million lien in a case involving his wife, court records show. His wife’s attorneys said she was “deeply saddened and terribly upset” by the blast and declined to comment further.

Heavy black smoke rose high above the 19th-century building, just a few blocks from Central Park. There was debris everywhere. Four of the injured were pedestrians — a few of them were found on the street covered in blood.

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

Power company Con Edison said its crews had been responding to complaints from a gas customer at an adjacent building at the time of the blast.

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 housed two doctors’ offices. Authorities said a nurse who was supposed to open one of the offices arrived late, narrowly missing the explosion.

Dr. Bartha apparently was the only person who lived in the building, Commissioner Scoppetta said.

Thad Milonas, 57, said he 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.

“In a few seconds, finished,” he said. “The whole building collapsed.”

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