National

Five avoid prison for '01 inferno fatal to 44

Building blaze in Kabukicho nets negligence convictions

Kyodo News

The Tokyo District Court found five out of six defendants guilty Wednesday of professional negligence in connection with a building fire that claimed 44 lives in Tokyo’s Kabukicho nightlife district in 2001 and handed them suspended prison terms.

The sixth defendant was acquitted.

The court handed down three-year prison terms, suspended for five years, to Shigeo Segawa, 66, a board member of Kurume Kosan, which managed the four-story Meisei 56 building, and to Kazuo Yamada, 56, president of the company, as well as to two former managers of tenant shops in the Shinjuku Ward building. The two are Yoshiji Izawa, 48, who ran a mah-jongg parlor, and Masayuki Goto, 34, who ran a restaurant.

Teruji Matsumoto, 41, who managed the mah-jongg parlor, received a two-year term, suspended for four years, while a male employee of his was acquitted.

Determining the five had neglected to take sufficient fire safety measures, presiding Judge Masanori Hatoko said, “If the defendants had not left goods around staircases and if they had maintained fire doors appropriately so the doors could close anytime, the victims would not have had to die or get injured.

“The defendants were in pursuit of quick profits and had extremely low awareness of fire-prevention,” Hatoko said. “Such an attitude should be criticized harshly.”

But the court said the mah-jongg parlor employee was not guilty on the grounds that “he was only supporting the manager and had no discretion on important matters.”

Because police, after finding no other direct cause for the fire, concluded it must have been arson, the focal point of the trial was whether the defendants could have foreseen the blaze and if they should be held liable for failing to prevent it or keep the emergency stairs open and uncluttered.

Police are still probing but have made no arrest in the alleged arson.

Asked by the judge if the defendants had something to say before the ruling, Segawa said in a fragile voice, “I want police to arrest the arsonist.”

Keiichi Watanabe, deputy chief prosecutor of the Tokyo District Public Prosecutor’s Office, said: “The ruling that acquitted one of the six was unexpected. We will examine the ruling in detail and decide our next course of action.”

Seeking three to four years in prison against the six defendants, prosecutors said in their closing arguments that the death toll was aggravated by the defendants’ multiple fire safety violations, including failure to properly install fire doors and smoke control systems.

“If proper safety measures had been taken, the fire could have been a minor one,” they said in a statement, citing the result of a fire experiment. “Instead, their negligence caused an unprecedented disaster.”

All six defendants had pleaded not guilty. “The fire was caused by arson,” their lawyers argued in a statement. “Even if they took proper fire-prevention measures, the damage would not have been avoided.”

The fire occurred at around 1 a.m. on Sept. 1, 2001, affecting customers and workers in the shops. Besides the 44 who died, three people were injured when they leaped from windows.

In 2006, Segawa and Yamada settled a suit by agreeing to pay a combined ¥800 million in damages to relatives of 33 of the 44 victims.