CHISATO TANAKA and MARI YAMAGUCHI
Osaka, Japan (AP). On Friday, a fire that spread from a mental hospital on the fourth floor of an eight-story building in central Osaka in western Japan killed 24 people. The police investigated the case as possible arson and murder.
Police were looking for a man between the ages of 50 and 60, whose witnesses saw him carrying a paper bag with an unidentified liquid dripping from it. He could have been among the 24 dead, or one of three people who have been resuscitated and remain in dire conditions, or may have escaped, the police investigator said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to communicate with the media.
Fire officials who approached a building in the main business, shopping and entertainment district of Kitashinchi in Osaka found 27 people in cardiac arrest, Osaka Fire Service Officer Akira Kishimoto said.
According to him, one woman was conscious and was knocked down the stairs from a window on the sixth floor and was being treated in a hospital. It was announced later Friday that 24 people had died, the fire department said.
In Japan, authorities generally describe people with no signs of vital activity as being in shinpai teishi, or in a state of cardiac and pulmonary arrest, and do not confirm death until after it has been confirmed in hospitals and other necessary procedures have been performed.
A hospital doctor who treated the victims said he believed many of them died after inhaling carbon monoxide because they had limited external injuries. Police said the cause of death could not be determined until the bodies were autopsied.
One client said the clinic was popular and always filled with 15-20 people, especially on Fridays when special counseling and programs were available for those planning to return to work after taking sick leave, NHK said.
Authorities are investigating the possibility that smoke filled the floor so quickly that the victims did not have time to escape, Nippon Television reported.
A few hours later on Friday night, crowds were still gathering outside the building to take a look at the site where firefighters and police were investigating.
“I haven’t heard of the reason, but I’m shocked and don’t understand why anyone did it,” said Yuji Uehara, who works for a financial company. “I also offer my condolences to the victims.”
The building houses a psychiatric clinic and an internal medicine clinic, an English language school and other businesses. Most of the victims are believed to be visitors to the clinic on the fourth floor, firefighters said.
Osaka police previously said they are working to determine if the fire was caused by arson. They later set up a team at the prefectural police headquarters, a sign of serious suspicion of arson and murder.
According to NHK, a female dispensary at the clinic’s front desk saw a man wanted by the police. Another person nearby said the fire started shortly after he put the leaky bag next to the stove on the floor and kicked him, causing more liquid to spill out.
According to NHK, the clinic’s psychiatrist Kotaro Nishizawa could not be contacted after the fire. He quoted his father as saying that the doctor hinted at a problem at the clinic, but did not elaborate.
According to firefighters, people from other floors of the building were safely evacuated.
NHK cited a witness who said she heard a woman’s voice from the fourth floor calling for help. Another witness told TV Asahi that he saw flames and smoke coming out of the fourth floor windows when he went outside after hearing the noise.
A total of 70 fire engines were deployed to extinguish the fire, which officials said were completely extinguished more than six hours later.
In 2019, at Kyoto Animation, an attacker broke into a building and set it on fire, killing 36 people and injuring more than 30. The incident shook Japan and sparked an outpouring of grief from anime fans around the world. In 2001, a deliberate arson attack in Tokyo’s entertainment district of Kabukicho killed 44 people – the worst known case of arson in the country today.
Yamaguchi reported from Tokyo.