TOKYO. On Sunday, Japanese police identified the 61-year-old man as the prime suspect in a fire that engulfed a psychiatric clinic in an eight-story building where he was a patient, killing 24 people who were trapped inside.
The government also announced plans to inspect tens of thousands of similar buildings across the country. Authorities believe the massive death toll in a building in downtown Osaka on Friday is due in large part to the fact that the fire made its only escape ladder unusable.
Osaka police, which are investigating the arson and murder case, identified the man as Morio Tanimoto. According to the police, he is in serious condition after being rescued from the fire. He has not been formally arrested or charged.
Surveillance footage broadcast by NHK TV showed the suspect heading to the clinic on Friday morning with a backpack and riding a bicycle with bags in the front basket and something bulky tied to the back. The man in the footage was wearing a surgical mask and a baseball cap that covered his face.
Kyodo News reported that Tanimoto was a metal craftsman. His former employer at the factory where he worked from 2002-2010 described him as diligent and skilled. According to him, he left without saying what his plans were. According to Kyodo, Tanimoto trained at his father’s sheet metal factory in Osaka after graduating from high school, but left after his brother took over the business and subsequently changed jobs many times.
Some of his neighbors interviewed by local media described him as a gray-haired man who rode a bicycle and barely spoke.
The Nishi Umeda Mind and Body Clinic was located on the fourth floor of an eight-story building in Osaka’s bustling business district, Kitashinchi, and was renowned for its on-the-job mental health support.
On Saturday, police ransacked Tanimoto’s home and found the clinic’s patient card.
Authorities are investigating why the smoke filled the floor so quickly that it left the victims trapped. The fire, which engulfed just 25 square meters (270 square feet) of floor near the front desk, was extinguished mostly in 30 minutes.
On Sunday, Interior and Communications Minister Yasushi Kaneko, who is also responsible for fire and disaster management, said he had ordered a nationwide inspection of about 30,000 commercial buildings with three or more floors, but with only one staircase.
Kaneko said that many of the victims were unable to escape and died because the only staircase in the Osaka building was inaccessible due to the fire, and they got lost trying to get out. According to him, the ministry will create a group of experts to discuss security measures.
Police cited witnesses who saw a man enter the clinic with a paper bag, which he placed on the floor next to the heater at the front desk and then kicked him. Liquid poured out, caught fire and the whole area caught fire with flame and smoke.
A surveillance camera in the clinic captured a scene in which a man stands at the entrance, as if blocking the way, NHK reported.
Witnesses and investigators suggested that the victims were gasping for air and struggling to get out of the clinic. Most of them were found to have passed out on their way to the other end of the clinic, but found that there was no alternative.
The clinic, which also lacked an external staircase, had several small consultation and seminar rooms along just one corridor, with the main meeting room at the far end of the floor. Officials said there were no records of previous violations of fire regulations in the building.
Two visitors who witnessed the start of the fire at the registration desk were able to escape.
Firefighters initially found 27 people in cardiac arrest, including three who were resuscitated, officials said. The fourth survivor was knocked down an aerial staircase from a sixth floor window with minor injuries.
Some of the clinic’s clients who spoke to Japanese media said the clinic is popular and always crowded, waiting for up to 20 people, especially on Fridays, when special counseling and programs were available for those planning to return to work after sick leave.
The psychiatrist at the Kotaro Nishizawa Clinic is unavailable after the fire.
On weekends, Osaka residents brought flowers, bottled water and canned drinks as offerings to the spirits of the dead outside the building.
The fire came as a shocking reminder of the 2019 attack on Kyoto Animation, in which an attacker broke into a building and set the building on fire, killing 36 people and wounding more than 30 people. 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 arson attack in the country today.