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Police confirmed 24 people died after a fire tore through the upper floors of a small commercial building in Osaka on Friday morning, with officials suspecting arson as the cause of the blaze.

The fire in the city’s bustling Kita Ward was reported at around 10:20 a.m. to the local fire department and appeared to have begun in a medical clinic on the fourth floor of the multistory building, which also contained an English cafe and a small clothing shop, among other tenants.

Windows on the fourth floor were shattered and burn marks were clearly visible to the throngs of office workers, reporters and camera crews gathered at the scene of the blaze, which was just minutes from Osaka Station, one of the city’s main transportation hubs. News helicopters circulated overhead into the afternoon as investigators and fire crews gathered evidence to determine a cause.

Firefighters said 17 men and 10 women, who at that stage showed no signs of life, were taken out of the building.

The fire was nearly extinguished by around 10:45 a.m. after burning across an area of about 20 square meters, the fire department said.

Police suspect arson for a fire that broke out at a building in central Osaka on Friday. | JOEL TANSEY
Police suspect arson for a fire that broke out at a building in central Osaka on Friday. | JOEL TANSEY

An investigative source said police have received a report that the fire started from a liquid that came out of a paper bag held by a man who appeared to be in his 60s. He is believed to have remained at the scene and was likely transported to the emergency room, and police are working to confirm whether he is among the 24 people who died, NHK reported.

Ryo Danno, the manager of an Italian restaurant located across the street from the building, said that he first became aware of the incident after an employee walked in for their shift at around 10:15, talking about a fire across the street.

Danno saw flames flickering and intense smoke billowing from the building when he walked outside. Firefighters had yet to arrive on the scene.

The restaurant manager said he saw a woman leaning out of the sixth floor window, which made him realize the severity of the blaze. A firetruck then arrived, he said, but the ladder was too short to reach the window. After a few minutes, during which a procession of firetrucks reached the scene, the woman was finally rescued, but she seemed completely exhausted as she was carried down. According to Danno, she was the only person who was evacuated from the building and he did not see anyone else running out. He said he believes she survived.

Firefighters at the scene of a fire in Osaka's Kita Ward on Friday | JOEL TANSEY
Firefighters at the scene of a fire in Osaka’s Kita Ward on Friday | JOEL TANSEY

Another witness, a woman who works for a company located nearby, said she saw flames coming from the fourth floor window.

“A woman was waving her hands for help from the sixth floor window,” the woman added.

The smoke dissipated on the lower floors as the firefighters sprayed the blaze with water and people gathered near the scene yelled words of encouragement, Danno said.

Firefighters conducted CPR on others who were carried out from the building, he said.

Police officers and firefighters tend to victims of a fire that broke out in a building in Osaka's Kita Ward Friday. | KYODO
Police officers and firefighters tend to victims of a fire that broke out in a building in Osaka’s Kita Ward Friday. | KYODO

Employees of the clinic often ate lunch at Danno’s restaurant. He said he doesn’t know their names, but they came regularly in groups of three or four, mostly women, around two to three times a week. “I’m worried about them,” he said.

Friday’s fire came more than two years after an arsonist allegedly set fire to a studio of Kyoto Animation in the nearby historical capital, killing 36 people and injuring 33 other victims in one of the deadliest mass murders in Japan’s modern history. Shinji Aoba was later charged with arson and murder.

In another suspected case of arson, 44 people were killed in a September 2001 fire in the Kabukicho nightlife district of Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward. No suspect was ever identified.

Information from Kyodo added

Police officers and firefighters at the scene of a fire in Osaka's Kita Ward on Friday | JOEL TANSEY
Police officers and firefighters at the scene of a fire in Osaka’s Kita Ward on Friday | JOEL TANSEY
Police officers and firefighters at the scene of a fire in Osaka's Kita Ward on Friday | JOEL TANSEY
Police officers and firefighters at the scene of a fire in Osaka’s Kita Ward on Friday | JOEL TANSEY
Police officers and firefighters at the scene of a fire in Osaka's Kita Ward on Friday | KYODO
Police officers and firefighters at the scene of a fire in Osaka’s Kita Ward on Friday | KYODO

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