Explosion, fire ravage NYC building; suicide attempt investigated

A four-story building on Manhattan's Upper East Side went up in flames and collapsed Monday after a thunderous explosion, rocking the neighborhood and leaving the block covered in debris.

Authorities said they were investigating whether the gas explosion was the result of a suicide attempt by a doctor who owned the building and was going through a bitter divorce.

A police official with direct knowledge of the case told The Associated Press that the man recently sent out an e-mail to his wife in which he contemplated suicide and said, "You will be transformed from gold digger to ash and rubble digger." The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.

Authorities said at least 15 people were injured in Monday's explosion, including five civilians and 10 firefighters, the Fire Department said.

The doctor, 66-year-old Nicholas Bartha, was pulled from the rubble after talking with authorities on his phone, fire commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta said. Bartha and one passer-by suffered severe injuries. The remaining injuries were minor.

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

Heavy black smoke rose high above the 19th-century building on 62nd Street between Park and Madison Avenues just a few blocks from Central Park. The block was strewn with debris. 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."

Scoppetta said authorities were looking into 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."

Officials said Bartha was apparently losing the home because of the divorce, and court records show that he faced a $4 million (Ђ3.14 million) lien as a result of the case.

Messages left with lawyers for the couple were not immediately returned.

The fire was reported at 8:40 a.m. (1240 GMT), and hundreds of firefighters rushed to the scene, reports AP.