Deadly fire reveals mass of violations

Sunday, September 2, 2001

TOKYO -- An investigation into Japan's deadliest blaze in more than 20 years has uncovered a long list of safety violations, and Tokyo fire officials drew up plans Saturday to conduct emergency inspections of thousands of buildings in the city.

The early morning fire killed 44 people as it swept through a crowded mahjong parlor and bar occupying the top half of a narrow four-story building in the city's most popular entertainment district. Only three people survived.

The cause of the blaze and of an explosion that rocked the building about 1 a.m. shortly after smoke was seen pouring out of its only stairway was still under investigation late Saturday.

But the first day of the probe left no doubt that negligence of basic safety rules was partially to blame for the high death toll. The tragedy has raised concerns that similar buildings -- which are sometimes shared by more than a dozen tiny night clubs and are common in Japan's dense urban areas -- may be at risk.

"I'd be scared to go inside one of those places if I didn't know the building," said Keiko Nakamura, a company employee in her thirties. She was coming back from an evening of drinking in Tokyo's upscale Ginza district, where exclusive clubs are stacked on top of each in other in row after row of neon-bathed buildings.

The Tokyo Fire Department plans to launch an emergency inspection of 4,000-5,000 structures in the city beginning Monday. The inspection could take more than two months, said spokesman Hirotaka Seo.

Too many obstacles

Fire and police officials inspecting the site of Saturday's fire came up with a long list of safety hazards in a building that had previously been cited for fire code violations.

Windows were obstructed from the outside by billboards. Emergency rope ladders had not been installed on the second and third floors. Doors that should have closed automatically to contain the fire did not shut, and the stairway was cluttered with storage lockers.

"It was almost impossible to escape," said local fire chief Yasuhiro Yoshii.

Officials noted eight fire code violations during their most recent inspection two years ago, department spokesman Seo said. The violations -- which included obstructing fire escape routes -- were considered minor and did not carry penalties, he added.

The conduct of fire inspectors themselves may also come under scrutiny.

They apparently did not look at the fourth floor of the now-gutted building during their last inspection in 1999 because nobody was there to let them in, Kyodo News agency reported. Spokesman Seo said he did not know the specifics of the inspection.

Most of the victims of the fire -- 32 men and 12 women -- died of smoke inhalation. The three survivors jumped several stories to the ground below

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