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24 confirmed dead after Osaka clinic fire; arson suspected

Blaze apparently started in a medical clinic on the fourth floor

An investigator inspects the scene of a fire in Osaka on Dec. 17.  (Photo by Arisa Moriyama)

OSAKA (Kyodo) -- Twenty-four people were confirmed dead Friday after a fire raced through a psychiatric clinic in an eight-story multiple tenant building in a bustling area of Osaka, with murder and arson suspected, police said.

The fire department in the biggest city in western Japan said a total of 28 people were injured, adding it received a report at 10:18 a.m. that a fire had started on the fourth floor of the building, which had no fire sprinklers.

The police said a man, believed to be in his 50s or 60s, who visited the clinic on that floor was responsible for the blaze, adding he was one of the 28 taken to hospital. It remained unclear if the man was among the dead.

Based on information provided by witnesses, the police said the man placed a paper bag containing a liquid near a heater in the clinic's reception area. They said he then kicked the bag, igniting the fire when the liquid flowed out.

The fire department said 17 men and 10 women, who were rescued from the floor, were showing no signs of life. Of the 27, 14 men and 10 women believed to be aged in their 20s to 60s were later pronounced dead, according to the police, who were trying to confirm their identities.

The fire apparently started in a medical clinic on the fourth floor of the building at the center here, near JR Osaka Station, on Dec. 17. (Photo by Arisa Moriyama)

The blaze, with flames and smoke billowing out of shattered windows, was nearly extinguished by around 10:45 a.m. after burning an area of around 25 square meters, a third of the clinic's floor space. The website of the clinic located near JR Osaka Station says it provides psychosomatic and psychiatric treatments.

It could be one of the worst blazes in Japan. In 2019, 36 people were killed after a man started a fire in an animation studio in Kyoto, also in western Japan. In 2001, a fire at a multi-tenant building in Tokyo's Kabukicho nightlife district claimed 44 lives.

The Osaka department said it did not confirm any fire protection deficiencies in the entire building, located in the Kitashinchi district known for bars and nightclubs, when it conducted a safety inspection in March 2019.

Given the number of floors and size of the building, it was not legally required to install fire sprinklers, and they were not actually installed, according to the department.

Of the 28 injured, the police said, a woman in her 20s rescued from the sixth floor of the building was slightly injured.

The condition of the remaining three was not known.

Meeting the press in Tokyo, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said, "A very tragic incident occurred. First of all, we must make efforts to prevent a recurrence by grasping the actual situation and clarifying the cause and circumstances."

"I pray for the souls of those who have died, and extend my deepest sympathies to those who have been injured or damaged," he added.

Shortly after the fire broke out, around 80 fire engines and ambulances arrived at the scene, with onlookers watching anxiously as the injured were carried out on stretchers.

"When I looked outside, I saw an orange flame in the window on the fourth floor of the building," a woman working in a nearby company said. "A woman was waving from the window on the sixth floor and seeking help."

Another person working at a nearby restaurant said, "I saw smoke coming out of the building and there were a lot of firetrucks and ambulances. People were being rescued by a firetruck with a ladder. At one point, there was a power outage in the surrounding area."

The clinic opened at 10 a.m., with a group treatment session scheduled for people looking to return to work after taking medical leave. A woman in her 50s said the clinic was always crowded, especially with working men, and waiting times often exceeded an hour.

"I think people who got tired from work were visiting the clinic," said a different woman who was receiving treatment. "The head of the clinic listens carefully to what people say."

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