Gas pipes ruled out as cause of Kabukicho blaze

An inspection of the gas pipes in the Meisei 56 Building in Shinjuku where 44 people died in a Saturday morning fire has ruled out the possibility the blaze was triggered by a gas explosion stemming from corroded pipes, Tokyo Gas Co. said Monday.

“We have determined that the fire was not caused by gas leakage,” the company said.

There were no cracks in the pipes or any other irregularities other than a gas meter that was found detached from a gas pipe.

The cause of the fire remains unknown and police suspect arson.

Investigators said they plan to conduct tests to re-enact the fatal fire in a bid to shed light on the incident.

Meanwhile, sources close to the investigation said a mah-jongg game parlor on the third floor of the four-story building, situated in the Kabukicho entertainment district in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward, had been having trouble with yakuza.

Employees of Mah-jongg Ikkyu are being questioned by the Metropolitan Police Department on suspicion that the fire was deliberately set in connection with the trouble, the sources said.

The manager of the game parlor has admitted to storing large piles of scrap paper in the elevator foyer on the third floor, where the fire is thought to have started, police said. The third floor was the most heavily damaged area.

During a joint inspection Sunday, the MPD and the Tokyo Fire Department found a large pile of ash in the elevator foyer on the third floor that was apparently the remains of boxes or containers. They also found similar debris in the staircase, leading them to believe the boxes may have been the source of the smoke that killed most of the victims.

At around 1 a.m. Saturday, a blast tore through the building, setting the third floor ablaze and filling it with smoke. The smoke then spread to the fourth floor, killing 44 people and injuring three others. Police identified the last victim Monday as Yoshiyuki Shimizu, 46, of Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture.

During a news conference Monday, officials of the fire department said there is a possibility that the game parlor’s fire alarm system did not work at the time of the blast because the ceiling had been repaired in a manner that interfered with it.

A parlor employee who escaped the fire by jumping out of a window told police a mass of black smoke filled the parlor from the elevator area when he opened a connecting door, the sources said.

During investigations Saturday, a gas meter was found hanging from a badly damaged gas pipe, but it remains unclear whether the blast knocked the gas meter off or whether it became detached through some other manner, they said.

The arson investigation is focusing on links between the cause of the gas meter’s detachment and the source of the fire.

A former employee of an adult entertainment bar on the top floor of the building said the staircase between the third and fourth floors was usually blocked with things such as lockers, boxes and beer cases.

Investigators will question the building’s owner and tenants on suspicion of insufficient fire prevention measures, the sources said.

In the meantime, the Tokyo Fire Department started counseling support Monday for firefighters involved in the rescue operation.

The department wants to prevent firefighters from developing so-called critical incident stress, a form of posttraumatic stress that often afflicts emergency services personnel who have dealt with major disasters or threatening situations, the department said.

Health experts say those suffering from CIS may develop posttraumatic stress disorder.

The department plans to provide support to about 120 firefighters involved in the rescue operation. Some described horrific scenes in the burning building, which housed a game parlor and hostess club.

Safety checks slated

The Fire and Disaster Management Agency on Monday ordered 900 fire departments nationwide to conduct safety checks of buildings that house many businesses, following Saturday’s fire in Tokyo that killed 44 people.

The safety checks will cover small-scale buildings equipped with only one stairway that house restaurants and such entertainment facilities as dance halls, video arcades, pachinko parlors and cabarets, agency officials said.

Each fire department will examine the buildings to see if they have adequate fire-prevention facilities and instruct the owners or people responsible for the businesses in them to rectify any shortcomings found to be violating the Fire Service Law.

The fire departments will also ask them to submit the names of people responsible for fire prevention as well as specific fire-prevention programs.

In a meeting at his official residence, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told agency head Hiroaki Nakagawa to take all possible measures to prevent a fire of this sort from reoccurring.

Meanwhile, the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry instructed the 47 prefectural governments to inspect buildings with a floor area up to 200 sq. meters that house adult entertainment shops to confirm whether evacuation routes have been set up in accordance with the Building Standards Law.

Both the agency and ministry will ask the fire departments to report the results of their inspections by the end of October. They also plan to separately establish a panel of experts in the near future to study fire-prevention measures, officials said.

According to a Kyodo News survey, fire departments in 37 local governments across the nation conducted special inspections Sunday and Monday on buildings similar to the one gutted in Saturday’s fire.

Similar inspections will begin in six other cities today, and more than 20,000 buildings are expected to be checked by late October, including 4,000 in Tokyo.

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