A powerful fire and explosion ripped through a mah-jongg parlor and an adult entertainment club in the Kabukicho entertainment district of Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward early Saturday, killing at least 44 people and injuring three others, authorities said.
The victims — 32 men and 12 women — were among 47 people who were taken to about 20 hospitals in Shinjuku Ward and surrounding areas. The three survivors suffered minor injuries after jumping from the four-story Meisei 56 Building.
Hospital officials said most of the victims died from inhaling carbon monoxide fumes. The causes of the remaining deaths were not immediately known or have not been made public and, as of 5 p.m. Saturday evening officials had not identified 14 of the men and the nine female victims. Some of the dead were identified as Takaaki Kobayashi, 35, from Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture, Teruyasu Yoshiura, aged 32, Minoru Udaka, 46, and Hiroki Kawai, 24, both of Tokyo’s Itabashi Ward, Koichiro Saeki, 41, from Tokyo’s Adachi Ward, and Masakazu Fujii, 37, of Tokyo’s Sumida Ward.
The fire was more devastating than a 1982 blaze, when 33 people were killed and 29 others injured in a fire that gutted the Hotel New Japan, in the Akasaka district.
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi expressed profound sorrow over the deaths, saying, “I would like to pray for the repose of the victims’ souls.
“I want the parties concerned to thoroughly investigate the cause” of the disaster, he added.
After inspecting the gutted building with the police later Saturday morning, the Tokyo Fire Department blamed the heavy death toll on a single indoor stairway, the failure of fire-prevention doors to close and insufficient evacuation ladders and chutes.
The fire, which started around 1 a.m., burned for nearly six hours and destroyed 160 sq. meters on the third and fourth floors of the building. Metropolitan Police Department officials said the adult entertainment club on the fourth floor was very crowded when the fire broke out.
The fire department said the blaze may have been caused by a broken gas pipe near the staircase landing on the third floor, where firefighters found the most severe fire damage.
“There is information that gas leaked and caught fire. We are trying to confirm whether it is true,” said Shigeaki Kobayashi, head of the department’s Fire Suppression Division.
Police confirmed that they are investigating suspected arson, but that the cause of the disaster is still being examined.
Meanwhile, the fire department said no evacuation ladders or chutes were installed on the second and third floors, a violation of the Fire Service Law. An evacuation rope on the fourth floor was not used.
According to police, an employee of the mah-jongg parlor on the third floor said, “I saw black smoke coming from the elevator hall and then flames so I jumped from the kitchen window.”
Police said accounts by the employee and other witnesses suggest that the fire began first and was followed by the explosion, which police investigators say occurred when an employee of the mah-jongg parlor opened a door.
The explosion blew out a portion of the outside wall measuring 50 cm by 150 cm and shattered windows and store signs, littering the neighborhood with glass debris.
“I saw a man falling from the third floor after an explosion,” an employee of a nearby karaoke parlor said.
The building, located near the Shinjuku Koma theater and JR Shinjuku Station, houses a number of entertainment venues, including restaurants, sex clubs and game parlors. It has four stories above ground and two below ground, with a total floor space of 480 sq. meters.
About 100 fire engines and ambulances rushed to the scene, where firefighters needed more than three hours to recover all the victims. The last person — a 35-year-old man — was removed from the building at 4:12 a.m., firefighters said. The fire was extinguished at 6:44 a.m., the fire department said.
A number of people who fled to the rooftop, many with smoke-blackened faces, were later rescued by firefighters using fire engine ladders to lead them to safety.
A doctor at the International Medical Center of Japan in Shinjuku Ward said he was unable to do anything to save two people who were admitted to his hospital.