By Rich Schapiro
Peter Knoll lived a life of exceptional luxury and extraordinary leisure.
He once bought a $290,000 Aston Martin on a whim. He collected gold-plated watches worth nearly as much.
The son of a furniture magnate, Knoll is believed to have never worked a day in his life.
But all of that privilege couldn’t shield him from a tragic fate: Knoll froze to death inside his multimillion-dollar Upper East Side townhouse this winter.
His official cause of death was hypothermia. Police found Knoll in bed in his heatless E. 78th Street brownstone steps from Central Park and former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s mansion.
The story of Knoll’s unlikely death is tangled and complicated.
But at its core it reveals the vulnerability of someone who is older, ill and isolated, someone who is struggling to take care of himself and unwilling or unable to seek help.
Knoll’s death also shines a light on the fraught relationship between public utilities and the city they serve — and the startling lack of accountability when tragedies occur.
It has already triggered a state investigation.
The absence of heat in his five-story home was something he never talked about to his small circle of friends and acquaintances — but it wasn’t a secret to all.
Con Edison knew Knoll had no gas. The utility had, in fact, known he was without gas since 2014.
But that dire information never made it to a city agency or nonprofit organisation equipped to check on the 75-year-old grandfather.
So Knoll languished in a gap in the city’s safety net. In a cruel twist, the fact that he lived in a private home he owned made him even more vulnerable, experts say.
Older, ailing residents living in apartment buildings have a cluster of neighbours to rely on when heating problems arise and city agencies like the Department of Housing Preservation and Development are ready to swoop in.
“When you’re frail and living alone in a private house and you don’t have anyone checking on you and you don’t have access to services, it’s a disaster waiting to happen,” said Shyvonne Noboa of Sunnyside Community Services in Queens.
Even in the 21st century, in one of the richest cities in the world, an average of 15 people freeze to death each year.
The phenomenon conjures images of homeless people or wayward drunks succumbing to the extreme cold on park benches and bus stops.
But those deaths only tell part of the story.
Some 30 percent of hypothermia victims die after becoming exposed to frigid temperatures while indoors, according to the Health Department.
The percentage was far greater this year. At least five New Yorkers froze to death in January alone. Three of them, including Knoll, were found inside their homes, according to the city medical examiner’s office.
A 75-year-old retired NYPD officer died of hypothermia inside his ranch home in Middle Village, Queens.
Neighbours were flummoxed by the news. The man kept to himself and appeared to be a hoarder, but he received regular shipments of heating oil just like everyone else on the block.
“It’s not like he couldn’t pay for the heat,” said a 45-year-old neighbour. “So to hear it was hypothermia, I don’t understand.”
The New York Daily News is withholding the man’s name at his family’s request.
The third victim was a 73-year-old woman who lived in a two-story red-brick home in Soundview, the Bronx.
Dorothy Roque had been living alone for the last couple of years following the death of her husband. Her longtime neighbours on Underhill Avenue knew almost nothing about her except that she regularly went to a church they couldn’t identify.
“She was a very private person,” one neighbour said. “She wouldn’t even walk on the sidewalk. She’d walk on the street — not to talk to people, I guess.”
Attempts to reach Roque’s family were unsuccessful.
Con Edison, after giving the basic details of Knoll’s case, refused to provide any information on Roque’s.
Dr Barbara Sampson, the city’s chief medical examiner, said the cases reflect how “seniors are at heightened risk of danger when in extreme heat or cold spaces.”
These preventable tragedies typically go unnoticed, vanishing into data charts rather than sparking a search for answers.
Unlike construction accidents or child abuse cases, hypothermia deaths almost never lead to a follow-up investigation.
A ruling is made by the medical examiner’s office. The basic details are passed along to the Health Department. And that’s the end of it.
No city or state agency regularly probes how the incidents occur or how they can be prevented.
The Public Service Commission, which regulates state utility companies, can investigate a utility following a cold-related death.
But such an investigation hasn’t taken place since 2001.
The reason is simple — and troubling. The commission almost never learns about hypothermia fatalities.
It relies on reports from the utility companies, which themselves have no way of finding out about fatal hypothermia cases.
That the deaths fall into a bureaucratic black hole came as a shock even to experts in the field.
“It’s saddening and disheartening to hear that different parts of the protective system don’t necessarily talk to each other,” said Richard Berkley, executive director of the Public Utility Law Project of New York advocacy group.
“This is New York. We judge ourselves by how we treat the most vulnerable among us. This looks like a situation where we’re failing our own standards.”
The Public Service Commission was in the dark over Knoll’s death until it was contacted by The Daily News last week. After numerous inquiries, a spokesman announced it was opening a probe into the circumstances surrounding the man’s lack of heat.
The announcement drew cheers from AARP New York Legislative Director Bill Ferris.
“AARP commends The Daily News for bringing this to light and prompting this investigation,” Ferris said. “We can never let this happen again.”
Knoll had a deep family connection to the upscale neighbourhood where he lived and died.
His German-born father founded the Hans G. Knoll Furniture Co. in a small space on E. 72nd Street.
The furniture and design firm, later renamed Knoll Inc., grew into an international giant. But Hans Knoll didn’t live long enough to see his son grow up to be a man.
The elder Knoll died in a car crash in Havana in 1955, when Peter was just 13.
Peter Knoll went to exclusive boarding schools — first in Switzerland, then in Vermont — before enrolling at Columbia University, where he dropped out after a few semesters.
Friends say he fell in with a fast crowd that travelled widely and partied hard.
Tall and dashing, Knoll was known to snap up exotic cars and leave them in far-flung places.
“He lived the good life for many years,” said a close friend. “He was extremely handsome when he was younger, and he had all the money in the world.”
When Knoll took over the slender brownstone near Madison Avenue in 1974, he was divorced and battling substance abuse.
He joined Alcoholics Anonymous, found God and got sober. By then he had three children — two daughters and a son.
He split his time between New York and Florida and turned into a philanthropist, donating money to Habitat for Humanity and other causes.
As he aged, Knoll’s health issues grew more severe. He suffered from diabetes and later developed melanoma.
He gradually became more withdrawn and more suspicious of those he didn’t know.
Friends described him as “complicated” and “eccentric.” Garbage accumulated around the sunken entrance to his building, drawing sneers from his well-to-do neighbours.
In March 2013, Knoll hired a plumber to replace two gas-fired boilers. City records show that the work was completed and signed off on by the Buildings Department that same month.
Con Edison received a request to turn on the gas, but the utility refused to do so due to a “safety issue,” a spokesman said. He would not elaborate.
A Buildings Department official said it was never notified about Knoll’s lack of gas. The official insisted that the situation would play out differently if it happened today.
After a deadly 2015 gas explosion in the East Village, the department and Con Edison agreed to contact each other within 24 hours when dangerous conditions require a gas shutoff, the spokesman said.
Deprived of heat, most people would follow up with Con Edison or reach out to someone else for help.
But Knoll wasn’t most people.
He was not the kind of guy to make a fuss or advocate for himself. Instead, he dealt with the cold as best he could.
He bought electric space heaters. In the dead of winter, he stayed with friends at night and spent the days at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other city museums. His health problems slowly consumed him. In the warmer months, he’d sit for hours in Central Park, feeding the birds.
“It was clear that he had some challenging medical issues that occupied a lot of his time and attention,” said Hugh Montgomery, development director of the Putney School in Vermont, who visited the alumnus in his final years after he pledged to support his alma mater.
“He just had a lot of demands on him and it was a lot easier for him to go to the park and feed the pigeons than cope with his life.”
Knoll’s grown children lived in Florida and had kids of their own. He pushed them away and rebuffed their offers to help, perhaps wishing not to make his problems theirs.
On January 8, Knoll’s financial adviser noticed that he hadn’t used his debit card in several days. Bone-chilling temperatures dipping as low as 9 degrees gripped the city earlier that week.
The adviser called police and officers found Knoll’s frozen body in his upstairs bedroom.
His family was told he had been dead for several days.
When Knoll’s daughter Natasha learned that the cause of death was hypothermia, with diabetes a likely contributing factor, it took her a few seconds to even understand what the word meant.
“When I think of the life my father lived and to think he died of hypothermia, I didn’t get it,” she said. Natasha Knoll expressed shock after learning from The Daily News that her father had gone so long without heat and had seemed to slip through the gaps of the city safety net.
But she said she hoped the telling of his story would prevent future deaths.
“I would hate to have someone else in this situation in the future,” she said.
“I don’t care where you live in New York, you should still be looked upon when it’s 20 below zero. No-one should freeze to death. We’re not in a Third World country.”
—New York Daily News/TNS
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