SAPPORO - Eleven people were killed and another three were injured in a fire that started late Wednesday night at a residential facility for people living on welfare in Sapporo, the police said.
The incident highlighted the poor fire prevention and protection measures common at housing open to people with low incomes. Many such facilities are small and have structures built close together, making it easier for damage to spread.
At around 11:40 p.m. Wednesday, a witness made an emergency call to report the fire at the facility, called Soshiaru Haimu, where 16 people lived.
Seven of the residents were found dead on the first floor and another four bodies were found on the second floor. The victims — eight men and three women — had not yet been identified as of Thursday.
Of the five surviving residents, three were injured and taken to a hospital. Their injuries were not said to be life-threatening.
The fire was extinguished at around 11:40 a.m. Thursday.
Soshiaru Haimu was established to help those on welfare become financially independent. According to multiple sources at the company that operates the facility, the three-story wooden apartment building had five rooms for residents along with a shared toilet, bath, kitchen and dining hall on the ground floor.
A 64-year-old former resident said the “hallways were narrow and there was only space for one person to get through the exits.”
The rooms were located on both sides of a straight corridor that lead up to a garage, where bicycles and tanks for kerosene were kept.
The second floor had 11 rooms and also had an emergency exit with an escape ladder.
The rooms were reportedly about 10 square meters in size. Most of the residents received welfare benefits.
According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, there are 537 “free or low-rent lodging houses” that were registered with municipalities as of June 2015.
However, the ministry is also aware that at least 1,200 similar facilities are operating without proper registration.
About 90 percent of residents at the registered facilities are those living on welfare, and 40 percent are aged 65 or older.
In August last year, a fire destroyed a two-story, wooden apartment building in Yokote, Akita Prefecture, killing five residents aged between 58 and 78. Of the 24 residents, 12 lived on welfare.
In May 2015, 11 people died in a fire at a facility in Kawasaki. Most of the residents were welfare recipients and were also aged over 60.
Local fire authorities said Soshiaru Haimu was not obliged to install sprinklers by law. But when authorities checked the site in March 2014, the operator was warned of its failure to inspect fire protection equipment and report its findings to authorities, something it is required to do once every three years.
By December 2016, however, the facility was cleared of legal violations, and fire extinguishers and alarms were properly installed, according to the authorities.
“Some of the residents could not eat or take a bath without the support of others, so they may not have been able to escape,” a senior member of the operating company said.
When the fire broke out, neighbors heard a scream. Some joined in rescue efforts.
A 70-year-old man said he dragged a resident who had jumped from the second floor away from the facility. The neighbor also saw a woman shouting for help on the first floor and broke open the window grilles with a shovel to save her.
“I had heard there were residents who moved to the facility after their family members died. I cannot stand (this tragedy),” said a 74-year-old man who runs a ramen shop that was frequented by the residents.
An office worker who lives nearby, Ryoji Takashima, said that he “heard a loud, booming noise more than 10 times. When I looked outside, the building was on fire.”
Another man in his 60s expressed his disbelief about “how quickly the fire spread.” He added that he was concerned about the residents, as a few of them were acquaintances of his.