YOKOHAMA – Investigators examining the deadly fire that ripped through two neighboring low-rent hostels in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, have found that they lacked fire proofing.
At least eight people were killed in the fire early Sunday, and 19 others were rushed to the hospital, police and firefighters said.
Kawasaki City Hall said the Yoshidaya hostel, where the fire broke out, appears to have extended its original wooden building illegally. The Buildings Standards Law requires that a building of that type be demolished and replaced.
This may have allowed the fire to spread quickly, giving people little time to escape.
The law requires hotels of at least three stories to be built of fireproof materials, such as reinforced concrete, according to the Kawasaki building guidance division.
It also emerged that information about the extension work had not been shared between city departments. As of Friday, the Kawasaki fire department had conducted on-site inspections at 49 other hostels in the city.
Experts say fire safety is of paramount importance in hostels, which often have elderly residents with limited mobility who are more vulnerable in an emergency.
The two Kawasaki hostels had many elderly welfare recipients, some of whom had lived there for more than 10 years.
A 63-year-old man from Okinawa who lived on the second floor of Yoshino, the second hostel, suffers from stomach and lung conditions. He mostly subsists on convenience-store food like instant noodles, and spent his days watching TV for ¥100 per hour. He had a 5-sq.-meter room to himself. His little pleasure was to listen to Okinawan folk songs on the radio, but now “feels like doing nothing” having lost his accommodations.
A 69-year-old man, who for the past 11 years has lived in a similar hostel, said: “Every resident knows each other, and you can count on them when something happens. We ask each other what they have eaten, and play Japanese chess together.”
However, he spoke of his fears for what would happen in an emergency.
“The corridor is narrow,” he said, adding that he would be unsure how to get out in a fire.
There are many old wooden hostels in the neighborhood.
“I cannot escape if a fire breaks out and the front door is impassable. Some residents are bedridden, so there would be many victims,” a 70-year-old man said.
A 66-year-old man living on the third floor of another hostel said although it has an emergency exit they would need to use ropes to get down. He said he wouldn’t be able to escape in the event of an emergency.
The same situation arises in the Sanya district of Tokyo, where hostels accommodate many welfare recipients. Research last year by the Johoku Labor and Welfare Center found that 80 percent of around 3,700 residents in Sanya hostels were on welfare.
There are increasing cases of elderly homeless people moving into such hostels.
“When you ask welfare centers for help, the two options they offer are a facility for homeless people or a hostel,” said Kazuhiro Gokan, who supports homeless people, adding that many people choose to live in a hostel as it allows more freedom.
“It’s best if they can live in an apartment, but they have no such choice,” he said.
Fires generally result in a greater death toll when elderly people are involved.
In 2009, 10 people died in a fire at a facility for seniors in Shibukawa, Gunma. Seven died in a fire at a Sapporo care home in 2010, and five were killed in 2013 in a fire at a care home in Nagasaki.
Sprinklers, which can extinguish a fire in its early stage, only became mandatory in buildings of this kind when the government recently revised the fire service law.
Since April it has been compulsory for facilities for the elderly and disabled to maintain sprinklers. Hospitals and health clinics will also be required to install sprinklers from 2016, after a 2013 fire at a Fukuoka clinic in which 10 people died.
In contrast, hostels are categorized under “hotels, Japanese inns and hostels,” which are not required to install sprinklers unless their floor space exceeds 6,000 sq. meters or if the windows are small.
“We shouldn’t let the elderly live in those hostels built for day laborers in the first place,” said Kiyoshi Morikawa, a lawyer helping the poor and needy.
An incident like this was predictable, he said. Further safety measures are needed, including setting up sprinklers and having clearer evacuation routes, he added, and they should also hold emergency drills.
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