Six people were arrested Tuesday for alleged professional negligence in connection with a fire that claimed 44 lives in an unsafe building in Tokyo’s Kabukicho nightlife district in 2001.

The arrests mark the start of a full-fledged criminal negligence probe into the fifth-worst fire in terms of fatalities in postwar Japan.

Relatives of the dead plan to sue.

The six, arrested for alleged professional negligence resulting in death, include Shigeo Segawa, 61, who effectively heads the Myojo Kosan Group; Kazuo Yamada, 50, president of Kurume Kosan, a Myojo Kosan group firm that owns the four-story Meisei 56 building; and tenants of the building, whose establishments included a hostess bar and a mah-jongg parlor.

The six had been required under the Fire Services Law to ensure that the Meisei 56 building, or the floors they were occupying, complied with safety rules. The fire, which broke out at around 1 a.m. on Sept. 1, 2001, on a stairway between the third and fourth floors after an explosion, ripped through the building.

Police believe the death toll was aggravated by multiple safety violations, including fire doors that were supposed to shut automatically when smoke is detected that remained open because garbage blocked their movement, and blocked emergency stairs.

The 44 fatalities, including customers and workers in the third- and fourth-floor establishments, mainly died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Three others who jumped from windows to escape the fire suffered injuries.

On site-investigations and followup experiments by the Metropolitan Police Department have shown that if the fire doors had shut properly, it would have taken at least 20 minutes for the poisonous gases to reach the tenant floors, allowing time for evacuation, police officials said.

According to police, Segawa is laying the blame on Yamada, claiming he was responsible for managing the building. Yamada meanwhile was quoted by investigators as saying, “I am confused and cannot talk.”

About 30 relatives of the victims agreed later in the day to file a 1.5 billion yen damages suit against Yamada and others involved, each seeking 30 million yen in compensation.

The families of 20 victims, including employees of the mah-jongg parlor, had been awarded public compensation by last July after a labor standard supervision office determined that they died in a work-related disaster.

“I hope that (the suspects) recognize the weight of the life of my child, and not attempt to shun responsibility,” said Suiko Nakamura, the 54-year-old mother of fire victim Sayuri Nakamura, who was then 23.

However, many of the families said that the main focus of their anger was the person who actually started the fire.

Investigators earlier tentatively concluded that the fire was the result of arson, but have not ruled out other possibilities.

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