TOKYO (AP) — Japanese police on Sunday identified a 61-year-old man as a prime suspect behind a fire that engulfed a mental health clinic in an eight-story building where he was a patient, killing 24 people who were trapped inside.
The government also announced plans to inspect tens of thousands of similar buildings nationwide. Authorities believe the massive death toll at the downtown Osaka building on Friday was largely because the fire made its only emergency stairway unusable.
Osaka police, which are investigating the case as arson and murder, identified the man as Morio Tanimoto. He is being treated in serious condition after he was rescued from the fire, police said. He has not been formally arrested or charged.
After verifying security cameras and searching his home, police said they suspect Tanimoto was responsible for setting fire to the clinic where patients received consultations and treatment for psychiatric conditions, an official at the prefectural police investigation department told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Security camera footage broadcast by NHK television showed what it said was the suspect heading to the clinic Friday morning, carrying a backpack and riding a bicycle that had bags in a front basket and something bulky tied to its rear. The man in the footage wore a surgical mask and a baseball cap that obscured his face.
Kyodo News said Tanimoto was a metal worker. His former employer at a factory where he worked in 2002-2010 described him as diligent and skilled. He quit without saying what his plans were, he said. Tanimoto trained at his father's sheet metal factory in Osaka after finishing high school, but left after his brother took over the business and subsequently changed jobs numerous times, Kyodo said.
Some of his neighbors interviewed by local media described him as a gray-haired man who rode a bicycle and hardly spoke.
“Nishi Umeda Clinic for the Mind and Body" was on the fourth floor of an eight-story building in Osaka’s bustling business district of Kitashinchi, and was known for its support for mental health at places of employment.
Police searched Tanimoto's house on Saturday and found the a patient card for the clinic.
Authorities are investigating how the smoke filled the floor so quickly that it left victims trapped. The fire that burned just 25 square meters (270 square feet) of the floor near the reception was mostly extinguished within 30 minutes.
On Sunday, Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Yasushi Kaneko, who is also in charge of fire and disaster management, said he had ordered a nationwide inspection of about 30,000 commercial buildings with three or more floors but only one stairway.
Kaneko said many victims were unable to escape and died because the Osaka building's only stairway was not accessible due to the fire and they became lost while seeking a way out. He said the ministry will set up a panel of experts to discuss safety measures.
Police quoted witnesses who saw a man walking into the clinic with a paper bag, which he put on the floor right next to a heater by the reception desk, and then kicked it. Liquid poured out, caught fire and the area erupted in flames and smoke.
A security camera at the clinic captured the scene, in which the man is seen standing at the entrance as if blocking the way, NHK television said.
Witnesses and the investigation suggested that the victims gasped for air and struggled to find their way out of the clinic. Most were found to have collapsed while headed to the other end of the clinic, only to find there was no alternative exit.
The clinic, which also lacked an external stairway, had several small rooms for consultations and workshops along just one hallway, with the main meeting room on the far end of the floor. There were no records of prior violations of fire prevention codes at the building, officials said.
Two visitors who witnessed the beginning of the fire at the reception desk were able to run out.
Firefighters initially found 27 people in a state of cardiac arrest, including three who were resuscitated, officials said. A fourth survivor was brought down by an aerial ladder from a window on the sixth floor with a slight injury.
Some of the clinic’s clients who spoke to Japanese media said it was popular and always crowded with up to 20 people waiting, especially on Fridays when special counselling and programs were available for those preparing to return to work after sick leave.
The clinic’s psychiatrist, Kotaro Nishizawa, could not be reached since the fire.
Over the weekend, Osaka residents brought flowers, bottled water and canned drinks as offerings to the spirits of the departed outside the building.
The fire was a shocking reminder of the 2019 attack at the Kyoto Animation studio, in which an attacker stormed in and set the building on fire, killing 36 people and injuring more than 30 others. The incident shocked Japan and drew an outpouring of grief from anime fans worldwide. In 2001, an intentionally set blaze in Tokyo’s Kabukicho entertainment district killed 44 people — the country’s worst known case of arson in modern times.
Mari Yamaguchi, The Associated Press