Looking west across 62nd Street from Park Avenue. 1:30 PM. Photo: JH.
Looking east across 62nd Street from Madison Avenue (with the rubble and debris from the house behind).
My sister Jane called me from Cape Cod yesterday morning to ask if I were all right. All right? I asked; why? “Because ..." (and I didn’t know until she called) "it was just on CNN that there had been a powerful gas explosion that had blown up a building on the Upper East Side."
I didn’t know about it until then but soon learned that everyone in hearing distance feared the city was under another terrorist attack on East 62nd Street.
A friend of mine who also lives on 62nd street a couple of blocks to the east, had just dropped off a package to some friends staying at the Regency around the corner on 61st and Park when it occurred. Terrified at the thought that it was terrorists, she ran for home, without turning back. She was not alone. Within very few minutes there were sirens everywhere and low flying helicopters soon hovering over what appeared the entire path of 62nd all the way to the East River and the 59th Street Bridge. Within minutes mid-Manhattan traffic was at a standstill and it was apparent that no traffic was being allowed to cross the bridge.
Soon the world knew that a doctor named Nicholas Bartha, age 66, had blown up his house (where he also practiced) and had presumably planned to go with it. His “suicide note” – a fifteen page single-spaced screed addressed to his estranged wife along with about 20 others (including Governor Pataki!) blamed her for all his troubles. He stated: “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.”
Yeah, sure. As it happened, besides physically affecting the lives and livelihood of scores, possibly hundreds of people he did not know and who did not know him, he took a lot of the life of the neighborhood with his obvious suicide attempt. Ironically he was not killed instantly and while at death’s door, he had enough desire to survive to call the fire department and direct them to his still conscious body under the rubble. In the meantime, fifteen innocent people were seriously injured, some of them critically -- including two of the firefighters trying to rescue him.
Some residents of East 62nd Street (clockwise from top left): Gloria Schiff, Jim and Anne Sitrick, Ronald Perelman, Jamie Niven; Josie Natori.
East 62nd Street is one of the smartest, chic-est streets of the Upper East Side, home to some of the priciest real estate and home to many prominent New Yorkers including Sotheby’s executive VP Jamie Niven and his wife Lee, designer Josie Natori and her husband Ken, billionaire tycoon Ronald Perelman, Chuck Prince, CEO of Citigroup, Wall Street banking scion Billy Salomon and his wife Ginny, Gloria Schiff, interior designer Albert Hage, Ann and Jim Sitrick and Peter and Judy Price who founded Avenue Magazine where I once served as editor-in-chief. Both Prices and the Sitricks returned to New York from Europe yesterday afternoon to the acrid smell of smoke and gas which still filled the neighborhood twelve hours later.
In both daytime and night, that neighborhood is a hub of cosmopolitan activity, chock-a-block with fashionable restaurants and stores. Right on the corner at Madison Avenue is the flagship store for Hermes. One block to the south is Barneys, Cole Haan, and Ann Taylor. It was a miracle, although indeed still a sad one, that not more people were injured by the blast.
The explosion which occurred about 8:45 a.m took the entire building into a pile of rubble and debris. Some residents of the building next door, Cumberland House, suffered extensive damage from the smoke as well as windows being blown out and structural damage. It shook the entire block all the way to corner and 550 Park Avenue, considered one of the most desirable co-op buildings in New York. The cart of the food vendor on the corner at Madison literally lifted off the ground. Its owner, a jolly, familiar face to the neighborhood, was within minutes assisting the injured with towels and ice and then supplying the firemen with whatever food and coffee he had left.
The doctor and his wife, Cordula Hahn, had been in a court battle since she filed for divorce five years ago. During that time, Ms. Hahn had won a series of cash judgments worth more than $4 million. The doctor had owned the house for a long time. His late mother operated a manicure and pedicure business on the first floor for many years. It is believed he may have been trying to sell the building to help pay those costs. A man named Alan Winter, co-owner of APW Dental and Imaging Services had moved from the building only a month ago because he could not deal with the doctor any longer. “Everything bothered him. He was absolutely despondent about the break-up of his marriage.”
Arson investigators believe that he might have opened up a gas valve in his basement and let the noxious fumes fill the house. Since it was only an hour before his office hours, he evidently wasn’t too concerned about the lives of those who would soon be entering the building under the circumstances.
Meanwhile, like millions of others, I sat in front of the TV with its helicopter views of the block that are so familiar to me, thinking how miraculous it is that most of the time we live together in relative safety and harmony, despite the town’s frenetic energy; and that it only takes one of us, not thinking of the rest of us, to threaten everything around us. What if only, I wondered, Dr. Bartha had postponed his desperate act of alleged self-destruction just for an hour more, how he might have had a change of heart, and how much better off everyone, including he himself, might be this morning.