Investigators confirmed Tuesday that a gas line had been tampered with before a landmark townhouse was leveled by an explosion, narrowing their focus on the building’s owner, who is suspected of setting off the blast in a botched suicide attempt during a bitter divorce.
“We’re saying this is intentional,” said Louis Garcia, the city’s chief fire marshal, adding that the modifications could have been made by “anybody who is handy.”
Plastic tubing had been connected with a radiator valve to the main gas line in the basement of the Upper East Side building, Garcia said. With the valve left open, gas was able to flow freely into the house for hours before the blast.
The explosion on Monday hurled fireballs high into the sky and left the upscale block covered in bricks, broken glass and splintered wood. At least 15 people were injured, including five civilians and 10 firefighters.
Authorities have been investigating whether Dr. Nicholas Bartha, the lone occupant during the blast, might have caused the explosion rather than sell the house as part of a divorce judgment favoring his ex-wife. Bartha, a physician who lived and worked in the four-story building, remained in critical condition Tuesday after being rescued from the rubble a day earlier.
He is at a New York hospital with burns on more than 70 percent of his body. He was using a respirator to breathe but was improving, said a police source.
Detectives “want to talk to him, but haven’t been able to because the extent of his injuries,” police spokesman Paul Browne said.
Sole suspect’s angry e-mail
Bartha, 66, became the sole suspect after police got a 911 call from his ex-wife, Cordula Bartha. She told them that her former husband had sent her a rambling e-mail shortly before the blast, saying she would soon be “transformed from gold digger to ash and rubbish digger.”
The husband went on to warn her, “You always wanted me to sell the house. I always told you I will leave the house only if I am dead.”
The ex-wife’s lawyer said in an e-mail Tuesday that the doctor was the one who appealed a lower-court ruling that stated the house was not marital property and belonged to him. But he lost the house when a higher court ruled it was marital property.
“He unfortunately did not want to give her one penny, so he kept fighting,” attorney Polly Passonneau wrote. “He is living with the consequences of his own behavior.”
The 19th-century town house on 62nd Street between Park and Madison avenues once served as a secret meeting place for a group of prominent New Yorkers who informally gathered intelligence for President Franklin D. Roosevelt before and during World War II.
The building — just a few blocks from Central Park — was worth nearly $5 million based on a 2004 assessment and as much as $6.4 million in today’s market. It was to be sold at auction in October to pay a $4 million judgment against Bartha, though his ex-wife had predicted he would not leave without a fight.
A bitter relationship
“He has said many times that he intends to ‘die in my house,”’ Cordula Bartha said in a petition filed last year.
The court records describe a bitter dispute that dragged on for five 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.”
Power company Consolidated Edison had been at the building on June 8 after a routine check found a gas leak in the pipe.
The gas was shut off, and Nicholas Bartha was asked to get the pipe fixed, a spokesman said. The gas was turned back on after the utility ensured the leak was repaired.
If he were charged with and convicted of arson, Bartha could face a sentence of life in prison. He also could face charges of reckless endangerment or reckless assault.
Bartha has worked since 1979 as an emergency room doctor at Phelps Memorial Hospital Center in the suburb of Sleepy Hollow. The couple has two grown daughters.