Pre-dawn blaze guts hospital for aged in Fukuoka, kills 10

Staff allegedly failed to take action to stop spread of smoke, flames

Kyodo, AFP-JIJI

A pre-dawn blaze ripped through an orthopedic hospital Friday in the city of Fukuoka, claiming 10 lives and leaving eight others injured, four of whom are reportedly in critical condition.

The Fukuoka Prefectural Police said the fire at Abe Seikeigeka (Orthopedics) hospital killed three men and seven women. The dead included the hospital’s former director, Tatsuhide Abe, 80, and his wife, Yuri, 72, who lived on the third floor.

The hospital had been told to improve its fire-safety equipment in June but had taken no action.

The blaze apparently started at 2:20 a.m. and raged for around two hours, gutting large areas in the four-story hospital, which opened in 1970.

Hospital staff appeared to have taken no action to fight the blaze, the fire department said. Fire doors were left open, allowing smoke to spread to the second and third floors, it said, noting the hospital didn’t have an elevator.

Video footage aired on NHK showed firefighters surrounding the hospital as smoke billowed from the entrance. Second-floor windows were covered in soot.

Two people managed to escape on their own from the facility, which had 19 beds, with suites for orthopedics, rheumatism and rehabilitation. Most of the inpatients were elderly, reportedly ranging in age from 70 to 89.

An elderly woman was the first to be confirmed dead, and the nine other fatalities were victims who had suffered cardiac or respiratory arrest, the fire department said.

Hospital staff lived on the top floor, a fire official said.

“We did our best to fight the fire and save lives . . . but it was a difficult situation,” a fire official told a hastily arranged press briefing. “We received news of the fire at a very late stage, and there had been no attempt (by staff) to tackle the fire in its early stages.

“Patients on the second and third floors were exposed to a lot of smoke because fire doors that would have stemmed the flow had been left open,” he said, promising an investigation will be carried out.

Another fire official said the blaze appeared to have begun somewhere on the ground floor, but he did not know the specific place or cause of the fire.

“We first received the report of a fire after a nurse who was inside the hospital rushed out and asked a taxi driver to make an emergency call,” he said.

NHK quoted a firefighter as saying the building was fully ablaze when fire engines arrived.

The fire appears to have started in a treatment room on the ground floor, reports said.

A 43-year-old woman living in the neighborhood told NHK: “A lot of smoke came to the front door of my house and I heard shouts like ‘Help!’ and crunching sounds.”

The infrastructure ministry sent a team to the site to establish whether the hospital’s layout met building codes.

According to the Fire and Disaster Management Agency, the hospital was told to improve its fire safety after being found lacking in an evaluation in June.

Inspectors at the time found oil built up in a kitchen fan vent. A plan to upgrade the hospital’s fire safety features was submitted in July, but no improvements were made.

The hospital’s office manager, Tetsuji Kunimitsu, told reporters outside the hospital, “I feel terribly sorry.”