JAPANESE fire officials resume investigation into deadly blaze

Sunday, September 2nd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TOKYO (AP) _ Police and fire officials on Sunday questioned witnesses and examined the charred insides of a building for clues to what caused Japan's deadliest fire in more than two decades.

The fire early Saturday raged through a four-story building in the nation's biggest entertainment district, killing 44 people and injuring three others.

While the cause of the blaze is still under investigation, fire officials said Saturday that numerous safety violations prevented the victims from escaping and helped the fire spread from a staircase outside a mahjong parlor on the third floor to the bar above.

Investigators on Sunday focused on a broken gas line near the third-floor stairway, as well as electrical wiring and other possible causes, said a Tokyo Fire Department official on condition of anonymity.

He added that police were questioning witnesses and shopowners around the building and have not ruled out the possibility of arson.

Mourners left bouquets of flowers, bottles of sake and other tokens of their grief before the building's entrance.

The fire started at about 1 a.m. Saturday, one of the busiest nights in the Kabukicho district in northwest Tokyo. Buildings there are often separated by less than one or two meters (yards) and ownership changes so fast it's hard for authorities to keep up.

Packed with bars, adult night clubs and gambling parlors, Kabukicho is notorious for the large numbers of drunken people staggering along its neon-lit streets at night. It is also known as a hotbed of organized crime.

The fire was the worst in Japan since 1980, when 45 people were killed in a burning resort hotel in northeastern Japan.

Fire and police officials on Saturday said the building 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.

The violations raised concerns that similar buldings _ which are common in Japan's dense urban areas _ may be at risk.

``Similar conditions exist in entertainment districts throughout the country. It is amazing that such conditions are allowed to exist,'' the Yomiuri newspaper said in an editorial on Sunday.

The Tokyo Fire Department said it plans emergency inspections of 4,000-5,000 structures in the city beginning Monday.