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Most victims of Kyoto inferno suffocated in stairwell leading to roof; no sprinklers installed

Kyodo, JIJI, Reuters

Most of the victims of Thursday’s inferno at Kyoto Animation Co. tried to use a stairwell to get to the roof but were unable to open the door at the top and suffocated, police and firefighters said Friday.

Most at the studio are believed to have died of carbon monoxide poisoning. The building had fire alarms and extinguishers but no sprinklers because they were not required for this type of building, local fire officials said.

Nineteen of the 33 victims were found on the stairs between the third floor and the roof.

The 41-year-old man taken into custody after admitting to starting the fire was hospitalized for burns to his face, chest and elsewhere. He was identified as Shinji Aoba and had a driver’s license that said he lived in Saitama.

Aoba has a criminal record and has repeatedly troubled his neighbors, investigative sources and acquaintances said. He also suggested revenge was his motive, saying he started the blaze because the studio “stole a novel” and plagiarized his ideas, the sources said.

The suspect’s association with the company has not yet been independently verified and police plan to question him after his condition improves.

Aoba was arrested for robbing a convenience store in Bando, Ibaraki Prefecture, of ¥20,000 ($186) in June 2012 and received 3½ years in prison, the sources said. He was living nearby Joso at the time.

He was released in January 2016 and lived in a rehabilitation facility in the city of Saitama for several months before moving into an apartment for single people there three years ago, they said.

Nearby residents said Aoba often caused trouble.

The death toll from the fire, which was finally extinguished at 6:20 a.m. Friday, makes the blaze one of the worst cases of arson in recent decades. More than 30 people were injured.

As investigators continued to comb the site, tributes to the studio poured in via social media on Friday, with world leaders and even Apple’s CEO offering condolences to the victims’ families

“Canadians send our deepest condolences to the families of those killed in the arson attack in Kyoto that has taken so many innocent lives,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Twitter.

“To the people of Japan — we’re mourning these tragic losses with you, and wishing a quick recovery to everyone who was injured.”

“Kyoto Animation is home to some of the world’s most talented animators and dreamers — the devastating attack today is a tragedy felt far beyond Japan,” Apple chief Tim Cook tweeted.

“KyoAni artists spread joy all over the world and across generations with their masterpieces,” Cook said, using an abbreviation for Kyoto Animation. Cook also posted condolences in Japanese, as did Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen.

Kyoto Animation produces such popular series as “Sound! Euphonium,” and its “Free! Road to the World — The Dream” movie is due for release this month.

About 70 people were inside the three-story building when the fire was ignited on Thursday morning. In addition to the 19 victims found in the stairwell leading to the roof, 11 were found on the second floor, two on the first floor and one on the stairs between the second and third floors, the police said.

In addition, an open, three-story spiral staircase in the center of the building created an especially deadly environment for fire.

“The structure of the building was that it had one spiral staircase penetrating through three floors acting as a chimney, the most effective way of starting a fire,” said Momoko Higuchi, a Tokyo-based architect.”Because the fire was with petrol, the effect was like a bomb. Most died of smoke.”

The suspect entered the building while screaming “Die!” and immediately splashed gasoline from a bucket before starting the fire, according to the police.

The authorities believe he was the man who was witnessed buying gasoline from a gas station near the site earlier Thursday morning and that he transported two 20-liter cans to the studio on a cart.

Police conducted an on-site investigation Friday at the burned building in order to establish their case for possible charges of arson, murder and attempted murder.

Many people came to offer prayers and flowers near the studio, where charred shelves and paper could be seen scattered inside through broken windows.

“I still can’t sort out my feelings and I can’t get over it,” said a 27-year-old woman who came from Nagoya after learning of the incident.

A 71-year-old man working near the site said he walked past several Kyoto Animation employees Thursday morning. “I feel really sorry for them,” he said, crying.

Kyoto Animation, also known as KyoAni, has produced popular TV animation series including “K-On!” and “Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuutsu” (“The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya”), which depict the daily lives of high school girls.

Animated film director Makoto Shinkai, known for his 2016 smash-hit “Kimi no Na wa.” (“Your Name.”), vowed Friday to continue making anime without hesitation.

“I would like to watch new works of KyoAni, and we, as workers in the same industry, hope to continue making (anime) without hesitation. I believe we ought to,” Shinkai said in Tokyo at the premiere of his new animated feature “Tenki no Ko” (“Weathering With You”).

“(Animators) desire to draw as many good pictures as they can and entertain audiences as much as possible. We are all companions in the same boat,” he said in a show of solidarity with the tragedy-hit studio.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, now on a tour of Caribbean countries, tweeted in Japanese that to many Taiwanese the studio is closely linked to youthful memories. She also expressed her sympathies for the victims and wished for a speedy recovery for those who were injured.

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