SAPPORO - Police believe an explosion at a Sapporo building that left 42 people injured on Sunday was caused by gas leaking from more than 100 deodorizer spray cans, intended for disposal, at a real estate agency.
The wooden building, which housed the agency along with a Japanese-style pub and an adjacent clinic, collapsed in the blast, local authorities said.
The explosion occurred at around 8:30 p.m. in Toyohira Ward, resulting in a fire that was extinguished at 2:10 a.m. An employee of the real estate agency told police about the disposal of the spray cans. It is suspected that gas from the cans ignited when a water heater was switched on.
Among the 42 victims, a male employee of the real estate agency in his 30s was seriously injured. That office was the most severely damaged. The injured included 19 men and 23 women, aged from 1 to their 60s, according to the police.
The local fire department said the explosion damaged a total of 28 buildings, including one about 100 meters away from the site, and 24 vehicles.
Numerous customers who were dining on the pub’s upper floor said they smelled gas at the time of the explosion.
Windows of condominiums and restaurants near the site, located close to a subway station in the Hokkaido capital, were shattered, and wood debris was scattered dozens of meters away. Many people who felt the blast said they thought it was an earthquake.
The Fire and Disaster Management Agency said it has dispatched seven officials to the site to look into the cause.
A local fire department said the three tenants in the building were poorly prepared for fires, with authorities having found no equipment for evacuations or alarms there during an on-site inspection in October. Required fire safety measures were not met by any of the tenants, with failures including the absence of an escape ladder, according to the local fire department. Administrative guidance had been repeatedly issued over the last two years, but no improvements had been made by the tenants, it said.
A gas safety center official who visited the blast site said five tanks of propane gas weighing 50 kilograms each were installed outside of the pub, while two 20 kg tanks were located outside the real estate office. Gas pipes in the buildings were confirmed to be damaged after the explosion.
“The ceiling fell, then the entire upper floor collapsed and we were all stuck. We managed to escape after everyone kicked through the wall,” said a person who was in the pub at the time and who was later treated at a hospital, according to a relative.
The lower floor of the pub had a kitchen and counter seats while the upper floor had private dining rooms, according to a neighbor who frequented the establishment.
“Suddenly I heard the boom — my body was lifted and blown to the floor,” said a 28-year-old man who was dining with a friend on the upper level of the pub. “After the explosion, the power went out and fire instantly spread and came near so I jumped out of an open window into the street.”
“If the (upper floor) hadn’t collapsed, everyone might have been stuck there and burned to death,” said a 49-year-old man who was dining with his family at the pub. Fire spread within five minutes of the blast.
The man said he had a brush with death in the face of approaching flames, but the upper level collapsed and he fell to the street.
“Orange flames leaped up and the pub was blown away,” a neighborhood resident said, adding that upon rushing outside he saw that the building had been completely destroyed.
Kunihiko Yanazume, 76, the head of a hospital about 70 meters away from the site of the blast, said pieces of shattered glass were scattered all over and that the automatic door at the entrance was broken.
“We may not be able to reopen the hospital this year,” he said.