Divorce, not terrorism, caused this explosion

Posted: Jul 11, 2006 7:01 PM
Divorce, not terrorism, caused this explosion


When the building on East 62nd Street in Manhattan exploded in flames, fears of terrorism quickly swept the neighborhood. According to the New York Post, talk show host Larry King, who was in a nearby hotel when the explosion hit, said it sounded like a bomb and felt like an earthquake.

But New Yorkers were quickly reassured: No, it was the work not of an enemy of the United States, but of one of our most common domestic products: divorce.

Nicholas Bartha, 66, was by all accounts a good and caring doctor, a cardiologist affiliated with both Lenox Hill Hospital on the Upper East Side and Mount Vernon hospital in Westchester County. He was also, by friends' and neighbors' accounts, sinking deeper into his own private hell.

Even before the divorce, he was impossible to live with. The court that granted his wife, Cordula Hahn, a divorce on the grounds of cruel and inhumane treatment made that clear. "Defendant intentionally traumatized his wife, a woman of Jewish origin born in Nazi-occupied Holland, with swastika-adorned articles and notes affixed around their home, and became enraged when she removed them." Nicholas ignored Cordula as she underwent surgery for cancer, cut off her access to marital funds, and eventually quit speaking to her entirely.

He soon became impossible for anyone just living nearby, posting angry notes to his stoop, bothering his own tenants. "Very mean, very obnoxious," said a neighbor. After the divorce, Cordula fought for her share of the marital assets; when a court ordered the townhouse sold and the proceeds divided, Nicholas Bartha hatched his demented plot.

He sent a long, rambling e-mail that made his mental illness, and his rage, perfectly clear. It was all HIS money, not hers. "There should be no economic incentives in the (divorce) process. ... If I had a prenuptial agreement, Cordula would have never divorced. ... I am not continuing what I am doing to give you more money. Cordula, my further staying alive does not make any sense."

He warned his ex-wife: "Your life will change forever. You deserve it. You will be transformed from gold digger to ash and rubbish digger. ... I always told you 'I will leave the house only if I am dead.'"

The saving grace, the thing that makes you preserve a tiny piece of sympathy for the man, is that as he descended into his own black pit of rage, he turned suicidal, not homicidal. He was the only one in the building at 8:30 a.m., before his medical secretary had arrived, before patients began to fill the waiting rooms. The strange thing is that, even as neighbors, friends and family report a mean, vengeful man, his fellow doctors and patients recall a caring doctor. He held on to that fragment of his identity, even as the rest of his world collapsed around him.

But there is another thing that makes me pause to offer a moment of human sympathy amid the evil this man did. My grandfather did exactly the same thing: At 67, upon learning that his wife of 30 years was leaving him, he burned down his own house, and died of the self-inflicted flames. We were not close. I hardly knew him. He, like Bartha, first destroyed his marriage by descending into paranoid rage, and then destroyed himself rather than face old age, alone, unloved, disconnected, publicly pronounced a failure as a man by his own wife.

Nicholas Bartha muffed it. Rather than dying in a twisted blaze of glory, he lay burned among the rubble, moaning and calling for help with his cell phone.

New York City firefighters risked their lives to save him. New York City policeman are expected to charge him soon with arson.