NEW YORK — A gas explosion that destroyed a townhouse on the upper East Side Monday disrupted business in the heart of Madison Avenue’s shopping district, shutting Hermès and affecting at least a half-dozen other retailers.
The blast and collapse of the four-story structure at 34 East 62nd Street, between Park and Madison Avenues, occurred about 8:45 a.m., triggering a fireball and hurling bricks, wood and glass onto the street. At least 15 people were hurt.
Designer Josie Natori, who lives directly across from the collapsed building, said, “I was in the shower and heard this huge explosion and thought my shower door would shatter and fall down. I ran to my bedroom window, which faces the building, and my jaw dropped open. The fire was absolutely raging, and the building was falling apart in front of my eyes. There was this black smoke everywhere.”
Authorities said they were investigating whether the explosion was a suicide attempt by a doctor who owns the building, but was being forced to sell because of a divorce. The physician, Nicholas Bartha, was the only one in the townhouse and was rescued from the rubble.
Firefighters, police and other emergency service workers descended on the neighborhood as it filled with thick smoke and closed Madison Avenue to cars, trucks and pedestrians. Consolidated Edison workers shut off gas and steam lines to the area.
The Hermès store was not damaged. Robert Chavez, president and chief executive officer of Hermès USA, who was traveling in Paris, said via e-mail, “We are closed today due to the clean-up and ongoing investigation…We are just concerned about the well-being of our neighbors.”
Almost all the businesses on Madison Avenue between 61st and 62nd Street appeared to be closed, including Church’s shoes, jewelers Lockes Diamantaires and Aaron Basha, leather goods retailer Ghurka, fragrance purveyors Bond No. 9 and Caron Paris and Georg Jenson. A spokeswoman for Anne Fontaine confirmed that the store at 687 Madison Avenue was shut.
The Judith Ripka boutique at 673 Madison Avenue also was dark. “Although we are always concerned about our business, our first priority is the safety of our staff and our clients,” said Janice Winter, president of the Judith Ripka Cos. Inc. “Summer is always a busy time for us, especially with the increased tourism. We expect that our clients, as well as New York visitors, will be back tomorrow, when it is safe to shop and have fun.”
Barneys New York, located one block south of the blast, opened on time, but there were few customers in the store. “Business is affected because of the entire situation,” a spokeswoman said. “Unexpected things happen and you just have to deal with them. We know from experience that most of our [morning] customers are locals. The collapse was all over the news. They said if you don’t absolutely have to be in that neighborhood, you should stay away. The tourist traffic is down because the street is closed. We are down about 10 to 12 percent for the day.”
A salesman in Barneys’ second-floor designer area said, “We’re much emptier than usual. All the attention is on that area where the building collapsed.” On the main level, a saleswoman said, “It slows things down. It’s just a tragedy.”
Adele Loeb, who was visiting from Ottawa, was disappointed. “This was my day to walk up Madison Avenue,” she said as she left Barneys. “Before 9 a.m., all we heard was sirens.”
Authorities opened Madison Avenue to vehicles and pedestrians about 2 p.m. By that time, the stores that were closed remained closed. Those that were open began to see some traffic, albeit not the normal amount for a sunny summer day. East 62nd Street between Park Avenue and Madison Avenue remains closed indefinitely.
Teresa La Torre, manager of the Domenico Vacca boutique at 702 Madison Avenue, said she knew there wouldn’t be any pedestrian traffic, but she opened the store so she could answer the phones. “I was feeling a bit sick in my head and my throat from the smoke,” she said. “People don’t feel like shopping.”
At Luca Luca, one intrepid customer came into the store looking for a green dress. “We’re not expecting much traffic,” said Nicole Martheleur, co-manager. “This is a busy time of year because we’re doing trunk shows and people come and buy for fall. We had three appointments scheduled for today.”
A spokeswoman for DKNY at 655 Madison Avenue said, “In the earlier morning, people were staying away from the avenue. Traffic picked up when they opened the street at 1 o’clock. The store will be maybe a few thousand dollars below normal levels, but nothing too drastic.”
Matthew Bauer, president of the Madison Avenue Business Improvement District, said some of the stores in the area “had some difficulty today. There was a lot of support and help from the city to keep things going as well as possible. The amazing thing is that Madison Avenue was open for traffic as early as it was. We should be OK by tomorrow.”
— With contributions from Karyn Monget and Jennifer Hirshlag