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 discussed 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.
The morning explosion hurled fireballs high into the sky and covered the upscale block with bricks, broken glass and splintered wood. Authorities said at least 15 people were injured, including five civilians and 10 firefighters.
The doctor was pulled from the wreckage after yelling up to rescuers, fire officials said. Bartha and one passer-by suffered severe injuries; the remaining injuries were minor.
Heavy black smoke rose high above the landmark, 19th-century building on 62nd Street between Park and Madison Avenues, a few blocks from Central Park. Before and during World War II, it was used as a secret meeting place by a group of prominent New Yorkers who informally gathered intelligence for President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Fire Chief Nicholas Scoppetta said authorities were looking into the possibility that the blast was the result of a suicide attempt, calling it "a distinct possibility."
Bartha had recently lost a $4 million judgment in the divorce case and the building was to be sold at auction in October to pay the judgment. The building was worth nearly $5 million based on a 2004 assessment and as much as $6.4 million in today's market.
Bartha was served eviction papers on Friday, said Dr. Paul Mantia, who also worked in the building.
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."
Cordula Bartha was granted the divorce "on grounds of cruel and inhuman treatment," according to the opinion, which also says her husband "systematically cut off her access to marital funds and credit as a means of psychological abuse."
In a petition filed this year by Cordula Bartha, she hinted at looming troubles and asked that deputies remove Nicholas Bartha from the residence. "I have no doubt that (Nicholas Bartha) will ensconce himself in the marital residence and refuse to leave it after the auction is held. He has said many times that he intends to 'die in my house."'
Cordula Bartha had moved out and was living with the couple's two adult daughters elsewhere in the city.
'Deeply saddened and terribly upset'
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."
Power company Consolidated Edison said an employee had been in the basement of an adjacent building responding to a complaint about a smell of gas at the time of the blast. The employee was unhurt.
The utility had been at the Bartha building June 8 after a routine check found a gas leak on a pipe in the basement. The gas was shut off, and Nicholas Bartha was asked to get the pipe fixed, spokesman Joe Petta said. The gas was turned back on after the utility ensured the leak was fixed.
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.
Bartha was apparently the only person who lived in the building, Scoppetta said.