Don Quijote president to quit over fatal fire

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Don Quijote Co. President Takao Yasuda said Tuesday he intends to step down to take responsibility for the three employees who died earlier in the day in one of two suspicious fires that struck its outlets in Saitama Prefecture.

“All the responsibility for this incident rests with me,” the company’s founder told a news conference in Tokyo after a 12-hour fire gutted the discount retail chain’s Urawakagetsu branch.

Don Quijote had been popular among younger customers who liked its quirky and often racy mix of merchandise, which was often displayed in a chaotic manner that lent a junglelike atmosphere to its stores, while drawing criticism that they were fire traps.

The fire caused the company to temporarily close all 102 outlets nationwide Tuesday morning to check on their safety.

During the news conference, company officials denied speculation that the deaths of the three were somehow linked to the unorthodox manner in which it displays its wares, arguing that the aisles and the jumble of goods provided “no obstacle” to emergency escape routes.

At the same time, however, Yasuda said Don Quijote will review its display practices and traditional floor layout in light of the tragedy, adding that the fires could result in a drastic overhaul of their interiors.

According to company officials, the three victims — identified as Morio Oshima, Mai Koishi and Maiko Sekiguchi — were relatively new hires at the store who began working there this year.

The officials said two of them went missing after they went back inside to make sure no customers had been left behind. Yasuda, breaking down in tears, said the firm will do “everything possible” for the families of the victims.

According to the company, there were seven fires at its outlets this year alone prior to the Saitama incident. The officials did not disclose the locations, dates or causes of these fires.

Don Quijote has often found itself the center of attention, both good and bad.

It first gained nationwide recognition a few years ago, when new outlets were meeting fierce opposition from local residents who feared the late-night business hours at the popular stores would disturb their sleep.

Late last year, it engaged in a public feud with health authorities over the legality of pharmacists in remote places selling drugs to customers at stores via TV phones during the night.

In January, a 62-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of attempting to blackmail the chain to pay 50 million yen by sending a threatening letter that contained potassium cyanide.

Also recently, the Fair Trade Commission raided the company for allegedly taking advantage of its dominant position when dealing with suppliers.