Suicidal past of doctor suspected of blowing up his own house

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An explosion that levelled a townhouse on a graceful street in Manhattan's Upper East Side early on Monday - sending terrified hotel visitors and neighbourhood grande-dames scurrying for cover - may have been set off deliberately by an owner intent on two things: suicide and scorning his former wife.

On one score Nicholas Bartha, a 66-year-old GP who first came to New York from Romania in 1974, did not succeed. Rather than dying, he found himself pulled from the burning wreckage of his home by firemen and yesterday remained listed in critical condition in hospital.

Investigators cautioned that they had no physical proof that Dr Bartha deliberately ignited gas in the home. However, details continued to emerge of previous suicide attempts by a man distraught that the home he treasured above all else in his life was to be auctioned off under order of the divorce courts.

Also coming to light was the history of the house on East 62nd Street, which for years before and during the Second World War served as a secret meeting place for a circle of highly prominent Americans committed to gathering intelligence for the US government. The address became known simply as "The Room", described by some historians as the first stirrings of what would eventually become the CIA.

"I am amazed," the author Phillip Knightley told The New York Times. "It's just intriguing that a place would be blown up that has such a connection to the birth of American intelligence."

Speculation about the explosion, meanwhile, was focused on an e-mail reportedly sent by Dr Bartha about an hour beforehand to his former wife, Cordula. The e-mail was copied to the governors of New York and California, George Pataki and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and to television news personalities.

"You always wanted me to sell the house. I always told you, 'I will leave the house only if I am dead'. You ridiculed me. You should have taken it seriously." He went on: "When you read this... your life will change forever. You deserve it. You will be transformed from gold digger to ash and rubbish digger."