A gas line leading into a Manhattan town house was tampered with before the home was destroyed by a ferocious explosion that punctuated an exceedingly ugly divorce, police said Tuesday.
Police and fire investigators searching through the rubble of the 4-story Upper East Side building discovered that the basement gas line had been modified so a hose could be attached to it, said New York Police Department spokesman Paul Browne.
Someone stretched a hose from the line to the rear of the building, he said.
After the explosion, authorities began investigating whether the town house's owner, Dr. Nicholas Bartha, might have caused the blast to avoid selling the home in a divorce judgment favoring his ex-wife.
A police official with direct knowledge of the case told The Associated Press that Bartha, 66, had recently contemplated suicide in a rambling e-mail to his ex-wife:
"When you read this ... your life will change forever. You deserve it. You will be transformed from gold digger to ash and rubbish digger. You always wanted me to sell the house. I always told you I will leave the house only if I am dead."
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.
Hours later, a gas explosion ripped through the house, setting off a raging fire and turning the building into a pile of bricks, broken glass and splintered wood. At least 15 people were injured, including five civilians and 10 firefighters.
Bartha was critically injured. Police were investigating the explosion as a crime but had not interviewed the doctor because of his injuries, department spokesman Paul Browne said. Authorities are looking into whether he caused the explosion as part of a suicide attempt.
Bartha, 66, was pulled from the rubble after yelling up to rescuers while buried in the wreckage, fire officials said. One passer-by suffered severe injuries; the other injuries were minor.
"This could have been an even worse disaster than it already is," fire commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta said.
The explosion and fire created a horrific scene on the Upper East Side. Heavy black smoke rose high above the narrow building on 62nd Street between Park and Madison Avenues, just a few blocks from Central Park. Debris was strewn everywhere. Four of the injured were pedestrians, some of them found on the street covered in blood.
"In a few seconds, finished," said Thad Milonas, 57, who was running a coffee cart across from the building and came to the aid of two bloodied women. "The whole building collapsed."
Bartha had recently lost a $4 million judgment in his divorce case, and court records paint the picture of a nasty dispute that dragged on for years.
According to a 2005 appellate court opinion, the doctor had "intentionally traumatized" his Jewish wife, who was born in Nazi-occupied Holland, by posting "swastika-adorned articles and notes" around their home. The opinion also said Bartha had "ignored her need for support and assistance while she was undergoing surgery and treatment for breast cancer."
In a petition filed this year by Cordula Bartha, she hinted at looming troubles and asked that deputies remove Nicholas Bartha from the building. "I have no doubt that (Nicholas Bartha) will ensconce himself in the marital residence and refuse to leave it after the auction is held."
The building was worth nearly $5 million based on a 2004 assessment, and was to be sold at auction to pay the judgment in the divorce case.
An attorney who represented Bartha in his divorce said his former client considered the house "his pride and joy."
"Faced with possibly losing it, he couldn't handle the pressure," Ira Garr said on Fox News Channel's "On the Record with Greta Van Susteren." Garr said he stopped representing Bartha after the doctor seemed to lose interest in pushing further with the appeal of his divorce judgment.
Attorneys for 64-year-old Cordula Bartha issued a statement: "Ms. Bartha cannot at this time withstand the additional burden of the media microscope on this personal tragedy. Ms. Bartha and her family are deeply saddened and terribly upset by today's occurrence."
The fire was reported at 8:40 a.m., and hundreds of firefighters rushed to the scene.
Rabbi 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."
"I saw a huge explosion. I've never seen anything like it. I saw smoke, pigeons flying all over," a cook who worked in a neighboring building also told WCBS. "I saw the building shake."
Police Lt. Eugene Whyte said the building included two doctor's offices, and Scoppetta said Bartha was apparently the only person who lived there. Whyte said a nurse who was supposed to open one of the doctors' offices arrived late, narrowly missing the explosion. The other doctor's office was run by Dr. Paul Mantia.
Whyte said the medical offices opened at 9 a.m., so no patients were in the building.
"It was a huge explosion and everything shook," Vivian Horan, an eyewitness, told WCBS. "It was terrifying. This whole building was just in pieces on the street."
Sherry Miller, who lives on the seventh floor of a neighboring building, ran out of her home in her pink bathrobe after the blast. Miller said she "saw coming down in front of my window a big piece of plaster. Then it kept tumbling and tumbling. And what I thought, I thought it was a bomb. The flames came in a second."
The building is located in an upscale neighborhood where the 2000 Census said the median price of a home was $1 million.
The neighborhood is dotted with notable architecture, and was once synonymous with high-society types like J.P. Morgan and William and Cornelius Vanderbilt. The Colony Club, New York's earliest social club organized by women, is right down the street. The destroyed building is next door to the Links Club, which suffered some damage in the collapse.