OSAKA — Four men were injured Monday morning when a fire gutted a closed-down historic kabuki theater in a main entertainment district here, police said.

Two of the men were working to raze the run-down Nakaza theater in the Dotonbori district when an explosion occurred around 3:10 a.m., triggering a fire. The other two men are firefighters.

The blaze, which took firefighters five hours to put out, gutted the theater and damaged more than a dozen buildings in the neighborhood, mostly bars and eateries.

Police and fire authorities suspect the fire was caused by a gas explosion that occurred as the workers were removing gas from gas pipes at the site. Police said the fire will be investigated as a possible case of professional negligence resulting in injury.

The two injured workers were identified as Yoshikazu Habara, 31, and Hiroaki Okumura, 26. Habara, who was working on the first floor when the incident occurred, sustained serious burns to his respiratory tract, while Okumura and the two firefighters suffered minor burns and bruises.

Demolition work at the theater had been taking place in the late hours of each night for the past week or so. The work scheduled for Monday was to begin at 1 a.m. and finish at 5:30 a.m.

Some 50 firetrucks and other emergency vehicles were dispatched to the scene, but it took time to extinguish the blaze because of fears the building could collapse without warning due to the ongoing demolition work.

The blaze also affected an adjacent “udon” buckwheat noodle shop and shattered windows on the first-floor of the eight-story Kuidaore restaurant, some 20 meters to the west. Kuidaore, a famous restaurant in the Dotonbori area, decided to close for the day.

The theater, used for kabuki and stage dramas, was established in 1653. The current building was constructed in 1948. A movie theater was also set up there in 1952 and for decades, Nakaza was a symbol of entertainment in Osaka.

Movie distributing firm Shochiku Co. had operated the theater but closed it in October 1999 as part of streamlining efforts, effectively lowering the curtain on nearly 350 years of history.

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