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NYC Building Collapses After Blast, Fire

Monday, July 10, 2006

A four-story building on Manhattan's East Side went up in flames and collapsed Monday after what witnesses said was a thunderous explosion that rocked the upscale neighborhood.

At least 10 people were injured, including five civilians and five firefighters, the Fire Department said. One of the injured included a doctor who owned the building and was pulled from the rubble after communicating with authorities from his phone in the wreckage, fire chief Nicholas Scoppetta said.

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

Scoppetta said a gas explosion was the apparent cause, but suicide may have been involved.

A police official told The Associated Press that the lawyer for the doctor's wife contacted police recently and said that she had received an e-mail from him in which the physician indicated he was contemplating suicide. Because of this, 66-year-old Nicholas Bartha was being forced to sell the building. As a result of the situation, authorities believe that the explosion may be related to a suicide attempt involving gas, the police official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.

The explosion and fire created a horrific scene on the Upper East Side. Heavy black smoke rose high above the building, wedged between taller structures on 62nd Street between Park and Madison Avenues just a few blocks from Central Park. Bricks, glass and splintered wood was littered across the block.

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."

"Everybody started running, nobody knew what was coming next," he said. His nanny and newborn escaped from their next-door apartment unharmed.

The four-alarm fire was reported at 8:40 a.m., and hundreds of firefighters rushed to the scene. They were seen picking through the wreckage less than an hour after the fire.

Fire Department Lt. Eugene Whyte said the building included two doctor's offices, and records show at least one apartment was in building. Authorities said a nurse who was supposed to open one of the doctors' offices arrived late, narrowly missing the explosion.

Whyte said the medical offices opened at 9 a.m., so there likely were no patients yet in the building at the time of the explosion.

TV host Larry King, who had been in his hotel room nearby, described the explosion to CNN as sounding like a bomb and feeling like an earthquake.

"I've never heard a sound like that," King said.

Thad Milonas, 57, was operating a coffee cart across from the building when he said the ground shook and the building came down.

"In a few seconds, finished," Milonas said. "The whole building collapsed."

He said he saw at least four injured people, including two bleeding women he helped from the scene.

Streets around the area were closed off to traffic as ambulances and rescue units responded, and the chaos snarled traffic in the area. Dozens of onlookers stood behind police tape watching the smoke as it engulfed the Manhattan sky.

The building is located in an upscale neighborhood where the 2000 Census said the median price of a home was $1 million. On one corner of the street is the high-end Luca Luca clothing store, and across the street is the French retailer Hermes.

Neighboring buildings were evacuated and sustained some damage. --- Associated Press Writer Tom Hays contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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